A former student is suing his Memphis, Tennessee Catholic high school under Title IX for refusing to let him take a male date to his homecoming dance, arguing it unlawfully discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation.
Lance Sanderson, 19, asked permission to bring a male date to an upcoming dance during the end of his junior year at Christian Brothers High School (CBHS), an all-boys private school. He was told via email by his principal that he “really struggle[d]” with allowing Sanderson to bring a boy to the dance. When Sanderson posted the email to Twitter, he was reprimanded and told he could no longer be a school photographer, as he had been, even though he was not accused of violating any rules.
The school had no rules against bringing another male to a dance. Their code of conduct still states, “All CBHS students should feel safe, secure and accepted regardless of color, race, background, appearance, popularity, athletic ability, intelligence, personality, sexual orientation, religion or nationality.”
Sanderson felt anything but safe, secure and accepted.
He put up a petition on Change.org, which received support from tens of thousands of people, but it was ultimately not successful in changing the school’s mind.
In the petition, Sanderson states that he had been out at his school since freshman year and that when he first brought up the idea of bringing a same-sex date to homecoming a school official told him they didn’t discriminate.
“But when that school official left over the summer, I was met with harsh opposition by my school,” he wrote. “One administrator told me that even though some people interpreted Pope Francis’s teachings on the issue as meaning they should support same-sex couples, these people are, ‘not the authority to which Christian Brothers High School is accountable.'”
In the days leading up to the dance, the school began to broadcast daily messages over the intercom that students were not allowed to bring boys from other schools as dates.
The lawsuit states that this left Sanderson feeling “bullied by both the school administration and by some of the students.”
“As a private school, CBHS held itself out to be nondiscriminatory with regard to sexual orientation,” Sanderson’s attorney, Manis, told NBC. “In our eyes, it seems very clear those were hollow words…They were not interested in treating [Sanderson] the same as other students.”
He chose not to attend the dance, and CBHS sent him home for a “cooling off” period of indeterminate length. When he returned a week later, he says he felt unwelcome.
“Everyone thought I had been expelled,” Sanderson said. “It was pretty clear that I wasn’t welcome on campus…I was sure it wasn’t going to be good for me to be there for the rest of the year.”
“I was very active at school,” he said. “It was a big part of my life, and it was all of a sudden gone. I was alone 24/7.”
Sanderson and the school worked out an agreement where he would finish his senior year with online classes and at-home study. He received his diploma that spring but did not attend the graduation ceremony.
With his lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Circuit Court, Sanderson is seeking up to $1 million from CBHS on claims including breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent training and a violation under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.
“We have confirmation that CBHS receives federal funding and also potentially state funding for certain programs at the school,” Howard Manis, one of Sanderson’s lawyers, said. “That makes them responsible for following the letter of the law under Title IX.”
While Title IX does not specifically include LGBTQ persons in its language concerning protection against sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities, recent court rulings have set precedent that they are to be protected under the law.
This includes a ruling by a federal judge in California who sided with two lesbians who sued Pepperdine, a private Christian university.
“I hope they don’t do this to anyone else in the future,” Sanderson, who now attends DePaul University, said of CBHS, “and that other schools that try to abide by similar philosophies don’t do this to their students. I really don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through this year.”