Disclaimer: This article was updated on Thurs. Mar. 2, 2023
The Christian Legal Society charter was rejected by the Student Bar Association on the basis of discriminatory policies.
Student Bar Association (SBA) Delegates Morgan Hinds and Eugene Flynn attempted to charter a local chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) on Nov. 13, 2022. This was cause for much debate because of a required “Statement of Faith” from every member in the society and the “Community Life Statement,” this one required only of officers, according to the Christian Legal Society website. These stipulations were incorporated from the national CLS chapter.
The national CLS chapter appears to have the ability to remove local members at their discretion according to the Christian Legal Society website, which states, “Any CLS member may be suspended or expelled from membership… for unrepentant conduct or active support of a position that undermines the CLS Statement of Faith or Community Life Statement.” On the website, part of their Community Life Statement reads, “We renounce unbiblical behaviors, including deception, malicious speech, drunkenness, drug abuse, stealing, cheating, and other immoral conduct such as using pornography and engaging in sexual relations other than within a marriage between one man and one woman.”
SBA members inquired if LGBTQ+ identity conflicted with being a member of CLS, to which Hinds and Flynn were unsure. The uncertainty caused SBA to defer to their constitution’s anti-discrimination clause, which was amended on Sept. 14, 2022 to broaden its scope and mirror TU’s schoolwide DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) policy. SBA ultimately decided to table the discussion until the inconsistency could be resolved. Hinds and Flynn declared they would investigate the Community Life Statement and remove the discriminatory language from the charter before they re-proposed in the spring semester.
The CLS board refused to permit changes to the charter. Flynn decided to investigate another Christian legal group on campus, while Hinds doubled her efforts in getting CLS chartered. During the first week of February, the SBA Executive Board was contacted by the Dean’s office. SBA President Stephanie Acquario and Vice President Taylor Williams met with Oren Griffin, Dean of the College of Law, who informed them that the SBA House of Delegates was expected to pass the CLS charter as it stood.
At the SBA meeting on Feb. 5, Griffin and Kelli McLoud-Schingen, Vice President for DEI, spoke on the importance of diversity. In Griffin’s remarks, he did not disclose that he would be the faculty advisor for CLS. He did, however, give an emphatic speech on how DEI efforts should not be hostile to or infringe on religious freedom.
Hinds then began responding to questions regarding the discriminatory CLS membership policies that were not changed as requested by SBA. When a student inquired if they could be kicked out of CLS for having a same-sex relationship, Hinds responded, “I’m not really sure why people are so upset at hypothetical discrimination. No discrimination has happened yet. I don’t think they would use that clause in that way.”
Prospective CLS members spoke at the meeting as well to persuade the House of Delegates to charter the society, although they were ill-received by a majority of the delegates. Reported remarks from these students included one member telling the delegates that their issues with the Community Life Statement were “reading comprehension issues.” Another student asked, “Who are you to pass judgment on what type of Christian beliefs are acceptable?” Another student said, “We should all be able to understand that a round peg goes into a round hole, the square peg goes into a square hole” and “a square simply cannot be a circle.” This appeared to be in reference to the inability for a Christian to belong both to CLS as well as to the LGBTQ+ community.
The final vote on the CLS charter came to five for and 21 against with seven abstentions. Another vote was conducted to decide if the results should immediately be reported to Griffin via email, which a majority approved. Hinds stood to address the delegates, stating, “If Dean Griffin is worried about this, you guys should be worried too. He says the anti-discrimination clause could cause problems and we should trust that.”
On Feb. 15, Dean Griffin sent a letter to SBA President Acquario with his decision to charter CLS. Griffin states, “Based on my review of student concerns, questions, and other relevant information including the Christian Legal Society’s charter request, and in consultation with the University President and Provost, it is my determination that the Christian Legal Society shall be granted a charter with all the rights and privileges extended to student organizations at The University of Tulsa College of Law.” Furthermore, he goes on to say, “The University of Tulsa has a strong interest in supporting its students’ freedom of association and providing students an opportunity to organize and join campus associations which promote their common interests. Whether the student organization is the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, Jewish Law Students Association, or the Christian Legal Society, these faith-based student organizations have always been welcomed at The University of Tulsa College of Law… In the coming weeks we will embark on a series of programming efforts to promote diversity and inclusion.”
Professors Ido Kilovaty and Betsy Rosenblatt of the College of Law circulated a memo dated Feb. 17 to the the TU College of Law faculty summarizing the vote on Feb. 5 and condemning Dean Griffin for supporting “an openly discriminatory organization at an institution that purports to care about diversity, equity, and inclusion.” They state, “LGBTQ+ students deserve respect, equal treatment, safety, and all the opportunities available to non-LGBTQ+ students. By allowing a student organization, like CLS, to deny participation by LGBTQ+ students, these students are not presented with those same opportunities.” They cite TU’s Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy as well as the SBA Constitution’s anti-discrimination clause to support their claims. Furthermore, they state that Dean Griffin’s override of the vote puts the law school in a bad light. “In times when diversity and inclusion are so important, a student organization that excludes LGBTQ+ students is terrible for the law school’s reputation. In fact, this decision is already making waves in our communities, especially with students and alumni.” They go on to include snapshots of various social media posts of multiple users declaring their disappointment with TU Law admin and questioning Griffin’s decision. They state that the decision is perilous for SBA’s non-discrimination policy and insert questions that SBA President Acquario posed to Deans Griffin, Karen Grundy and April Fox, including, “You asked President Acquario in your meeting with her on 2/2 to temporarily suspend the SBA constitution’s anti-discrimination clause. Does an override of SBA’s vote to not charter CLS by the Dean permanently override the SBA Constitution’s anti-discrimination clause? Is the SBA under an obligation to approve other organizations that are openly anti-LGBTQ? Is the SBA under an obligation to approve religious organizations that have discriminatory claims? (religious organizations that believe in white supremacy, for example, under the guise of freedom of association or freedom of religion)”
Kilovaty and Rosenblatt also outline the U.S. Supreme Court case “Christian Legal Society v. Hastings,” which holds, “We reject CLS’s First Amendment challenge. Compliance with Hastings’ all-comers policy, we conclude, is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum. In requiring CLS—in common with all other student organizations—to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations. CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy. The First Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization’s expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be. But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity.” They end the letter with a call for Dean Griffin to outline his next steps to support the student LGBTQ+ community.
After the circulation of the letter on Feb. 17, full-time professors held a vote on whether the law faculty should recommend that Dean Griffin revoke the charter. The outcome of the vote was eight for and one against with one abstention.
On Feb. 17, SBA President Acquario outlined the events leading up to Griffin chartering CLS in a Facebook post. She claims that the “decision dehumanizes, humiliates, and demeans members of the LGBTQ+ community, and publicly shows the University of Tulsa’s stance that in the name of Christianity, LGBTQ+ individuals may be discriminated against.”
A TU College of Law graduate, Donald Slaughter, expressed support for Dean Griffin’s decision as a comment on Acquario’s Facebook post. He states, “I applaud the Dean’s decision. If one does not wish to participate in the group, they most certainly can not. Attacking and attempting to silence and marginalize a group, who share a common set of values, is the only hate I see here.”
On Feb. 18, City Councilman Adam “Grant” Miller, who attended TU College of Law from June 2020 to December 2022, declared his approval of Dean Griffin’s decision in a Facebook post. Miller states, “It’s sad to see that TU’s SBA is so far gone that they would vote 21-5 to openly deny Christian students their right to practice their faith and have a student association to promote their values. Now more than ever, it is important to stand up for freedom of religion, speech and association. Remember, these aren’t just some misguided undergrads, these are LAW STUDENTS (and apparently faculty), many of whom will soon be graduating and released on the public. To me, it’s not all that surprising considering many of them are the same students who bold-face lied about things I said in a miserable, failed attempt to keep me from the city council. Nonetheless, it’s a sad thing when law students are actively promoting suppression of
constitutional rights. Thankfully, the dean of the law school and the president of TU wouldn’t allow this hate for Christianity and Christian law students to prevail at the University of Tulsa. Apparently, and thankfully, TU doesn’t discriminate because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, disability, age (age 40 or older), or genetic information. There may yet be hope.”
On Feb. 19, the SBA approved “A Resolution condemning actions taken by the Dean of Law regarding the Christian Legal Society” in a vote of 22 for and five against with four abstentions.
I spoke with Brandon Swearengin about his motivation for authoring the bill to censure Dean Griffin. He stated, “University Administration and the Dean of Law violated the students’ right to self-government and in doing so disrespected every member of our campus community who identifies as LGBTQ+. SBA will not tolerate administrators disrespecting the student body nor will we voluntarily fund discriminatory organizations.” When asked about the atmosphere of the SBA meeting on Feb. 19, he claimed that there was “very impassioned speech from numerous law students as well as several undergraduate SA senators, and the meeting lasted over three hours. It was not as contentious as I initially feared going into the meeting, however, because most supporters of the Christian Legal Society, along with the Dean of Law and university President, chose to not attend the meeting.”
On Feb. 28, Hinds responded, “TU is a campus that encourages diversity, including religious diversity. Religious groups, including Christian Legal Society, should be able to choose leaders who agree with their defining religious beliefs, just as other student groups choose leaders who agree with their groups’ core ideas. All law students are welcome to participate in CLS as Chapter Members.”