Student group with anti-LGBT positions alleges religious discrimination at UNH Law School

By TODD BOOKMAN

NHPR

Published: 01-02-2023 8:07 PM

A Christian student group seeking formal recognition by the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law is threatening legal action after alleging the school’s student governing body failed to act on its nomination.

The Free Exercise Coalition is seeking to form its inaugural chapter at UNH’s law school in Concord. Its mission is to “equip religious students in their free exercise of religion,” according to paperwork filed with the school. Board members of the group pledge to uphold “Judeo-Christian” religious traditions and beliefs, as well as oppose gay marriage, abortion and transgender people.

“Too often, students hide their religious beliefs in the closet,” the group says on its website. “It is becoming ever more counter-cultural to express them, and classrooms and cohorts have become less and less tolerant of such beliefs.”

After submitting an application in November, the group’s members allege the school’s Student Bar Association has unnecessarily delayed its formal recognition and that a proposed faculty advisor for the group withdrew his support after facing pressure.

Earlier this month, the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal group that advocates for religious freedom and is representing the Free Exercise Coalition, sent a letter to the university threatening legal action if the Student Bar Association didn’t act swiftly and approve the pending recognition.

“Rarely, if ever, has a student organization been more aptly named or, as the actions of your students and faculty make clear, needed at UNH Law,” Jeremy Dys, an attorney for First Liberty, wrote in a letter to the school.

A spokesperson for UNH denied any allegations of discrimination, and said that the application is being reviewed “under the same protocol and standard as applied to other student groups.” The university noted that students recently completed final exams, and are now on semester break.

As an approved student group, the Free Exercise Coalition would be expected to receive a $200 stipend per semester from the public university, as well as the ability to request additional funds for events.

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The coalition is the second religious group to recently seek approval at UNH Law. In October, the Student Bar Association approved a request to form a local chapter of the Christian Legal Society after receiving advice from the university system’s legal counsel, according to meeting minutes.

Some students expressed concern about the Christian Legal Society’s doctrine of opposing same-sex marriage as conflicting with the law school’s stated positions on diversity, equity and inclusion. The application from the Free Exercise Coalition is also drawing opposition from some students.

“You essentially have to sign a statement of faith that promotes homophobia and transphobia” to be a board member of the coalition, said Taylor Largmann, president of the campus’s chapter of the Lambda student group, which advocates for LGBTQ students. “That does not reflect UNH Law’s values. At least, I would hope not.”

The law school currently recognizes more than two dozen student groups, including the Women’s Law Student Association; groups for Black, Hispanic and Asian students; and groups that organize recreational outings. A photography club recently applied for membership.

The Student Bar Association’s guidelines for club recognition require any proposed affiliation to submit a mission statement, a list of board officers, a summary of proposed activities, and a faculty advisor. The Student Bar Association is supposed to take a majority vote on new applications at the “next regular meeting” after receiving them, according to affiliation rules shared with NHPR.

After the Free Exercise Coalition submitted its application, the faculty advisor for the coalition withdrew his name, First Liberty alleged, meaning their current application does not appear complete. In a statement to NHPR, First Liberty blamed “the university’s discriminatory conduct” for the withdrawal of the faculty advisor. In its letter threatening legal action, the institute is asking a UNH Law School dean to be appointed as interim advisor, as well as mandatory training for the student bar members.

The advocacy group said it will take legal action if these demands, as well as the formal recognition of the coalition, are not met by Jan. 2. The Free Exercise Coalition has launched a fundraising initiative to support its efforts on campus. To date, they have raised $210 from two donations.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a California law school that rejected an application for recognition from the Christian Legal Society. That case hinged on a state law that required all student organizations to allow any student to participate and become an officer in a club. Hastings College of Law argued that because some students could not swear to uphold certain beliefs of the society, it would violate the “all-comers” policy for student groups.

The Free Exercise Coalition’s application at UNH states that the group is an “open member” organization for religious students and allies.

Andrew Ladenheim, a second year student at UNH Law and president of the Secular Student Alliance, an atheist group with chapters across the country, said he expects the coalition to ultimately be recognized by the university. He added that he believes the school is fearful of engaging in litigation on the issue.

Ladenheim said inconsistent guidance from school administrators was to blame for the controversy over whether to approve the Free Exercise Coalition's application.

“When people realize the school is not really friendly, not really supportive to DEI, and that the school is not friendly, not really supportive of religious persons and beliefs, no one is going to want to come here,” he said.

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