An ultra-conservative Christian organization has chosen the Holy City as its latest battleground by backing two students in a lawsuit against the College of Charleston.
Filed on Aug. 21 in federal court, the lawsuit claims that the university is violating the students' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, those to free speech and equal protection under the law, by failing to legitimize their student organization.
According to the lawsuit, the South Carolina Politics Club was denied official status "despite repeated appeals," with university officials telling the students that they must either change their core purpose or join another registered student organization, or RSO.
Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom are representing two students in the suit. The group, known for having a hand in anti-LGBT cases and legislation across the country, has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Blake Meadows, an attorney with the ADF, says the students in question reached out to the organization after being officially denied RSO status in the Spring 2018 semester.
"Schools must treat students equally," he said in a phone call with the City Paper. "This issue was brought to us by students who felt they weren't able to participate in the marketplace of ideas."
According to CofC's Guide for Student Organizations, any organization seeking registration "shall not duplicate the mission or purpose of another currently registered organization." The perks of registration are downright necessary for the survival and growth of any student-led club; RSOs can book rooms for meetings, seek funding for conferences and trips, and promote their functions by tabling on campus in Cougar Mall and at school events.
These benefits can translate to a strong campus presence and higher member counts. Adding to the exclusion, RSOs are not allowed to affiliate or socialize with non-registered organizations.
The lawsuit identifies the club as a student-led, non-partisan entity that aims "to organize and educate students regarding the structures and processes of South Carolina local and state politics." It was officially filed against six College officials, including Interim President Stephen C. Osbourne.
Meadows is clear that the biggest issue at hand is the seemingly arbitrary decision by college officials to strip the club's leaders, senior Adam Gainey (also listed as the president of the College Republicans) and sophomore Jeremy Turner, of their right to organize. He cites the mandatory student activity fee, which totals to $520 over a student's four-year career at the College, as money that goes to support organizations the students don't agree with, despite the fact that they're being barred from starting their own. But the ADF's history of bigoted propaganda, and their representation of plaintiffs in anti-marriage equality and religious freedom cases, raises questions about their intentions in this particular fight.
Most recently, the ADF helped a Colorado baker appeal a decision from the state's Civil Rights Commission after the body decided that he could not refuse services for same-sex weddings. The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, made it to the Supreme Court, where justices narrowly ruled in the baker's favor, they said, partially because of prejudicial comments from members of the Commission on religious freedom. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a dissent co-signed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said that despite the baker's arguments that he would've sold the gay couple any baked good that wasn't a wedding cake, "Phillips would not sell to Craig and Mullins, for no reason other than their sexual orientation, a cake of the kind he regularly sold to others.")
The students, Gainey and Turner, did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit seeks a judgment that the school violated the students' rights along with compensatory damages and attorney's fees. The document claims that the student body secretary told Gainey and Turner that their organization was too similar to the Fusion Party, a group already registered on campus. Though a Facebook group for CofC's Fusion Party states that the student organization educates students on politics "without representing one party or thought," the lawsuit argues that the Fusion Party is "overtly partisan," and Meadows says the name has been used to try and kickstart actual political parties.
In a June 2015 financial disclosure, ADF revealed that it had spent about $8.3 million that year to "champion inherent God-given freedoms that allow for the flourishing of all people throughout the world while affirming the dignity of every person as created in God's holy image."
In 2003, the group filed two amicus briefs, or friend-of-the-court briefs, in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws in 14 states including South Carolina. One of their briefs called "same-sex sodomy" a "distinct public health problem."
The group has also been linked to so-called "bathroom bills" in at least seven states, which saw legislation that proposed limiting the public facilities that trans people can use, according to NBC News. ADF also supported the South Carolina bathroom bill sponsored by former state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, according to its website. The Christian legal group has since spread its reach beyond the United States. Before the Supreme Court of Belize struck down a law criminalizing gay sex in 2016, the ADF was caught front and center advising Belize-based groups that opposed the measure, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Alliance's first president and CEO, Alan Sears, co-wrote a book with Craig Osten that included a footnote with the incendiary claim that homosexuals held "top positions in Hitler's regime."
The group even produces its own YouTube propaganda videos in Spanish. One compares gay rights activism to adultery, promotes the scientifically-unfounded views that children need both a mother and a father, and describes gay sex as "unhealthy, harmful, and a public health risk."
At the time of publication, the College of Charleston had not yet filed a response to the lawsuit. A school spokesman declined to comment on the ongoing litigation as a matter of policy.