Sullivan’s law professor husband criticized by gay rights group

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UVA law professor Douglas Laycock is being criticized by a gay rights group for his legal arguments in favor of controversial laws and court arguments. Photo: UVA Media Relations UVA law professor Douglas Laycock is being criticized by a gay rights group for his legal arguments in favor of controversial laws and court arguments. Photo: UVA Media Relations

A UVA law professor married to the University’s president is coming under fire from an advocacy group that claims his recent legal arguments in favor of religious exemptions are aiding anti-gay and anti-woman agendas.

Douglas Laycock, School of Law faculty member and husband of UVA President Teresa Sullivan, is one of the country’s leading experts on religious liberty, and is well-known for a legal stance that often puts him on opposite sides of polarizing political issues: He supports individual religious rights, but also a total separation of church and state, and he’s argued several Supreme Court cases from that position, defending conservative Lutherans and Santería sect members alike. 

Some of his recent writings have been heavily cited by members of the religious right, and now he’s facing the ire of activists on the other end of the political spectrum.

“His work, whether he understands it or realizes it or not, is being used by folks who want to institute discrimination into law,” said Heather Cronk, co-director of Berkeley, California-based LGBT activist group GetEQUAL.

In February, Laycock penned a letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in support of SB1062, a highly controversial and ultimately scuttled state law that would have given individuals and businesses broad rights to exempt themselves from state laws they’re opposed to on religious grounds. Critics slammed the bill as a thinly veiled attempt to give anybody in the state the right to refuse to serve gays and lesbians.

Laycock’s letter, written under a University of Virginia School of Law letterhead and signed by 10 other law professors from institutions around the country, argued that the Arizona law was a fair extension of the existing federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it didn’t pick winners: The government “could still show that compliance with the law was necessary to serve a compelling government interest,” he wrote.

Similar arguments underpin an amicus brief he filed in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the high-profile contraception coverage case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Laycock sides with the corporation, which claims that under the RFRA, its president’s religious beliefs should allow it to opt out of covering certain kinds of birth control.

“When we started connecting the dots between Laycock’s work on religious discrimination bills and contraceptive coverage and access for women—that’s when it began to be a big concern,” said Cronk. She said when conservative commentators like Maggie Gallagher, former head of the National Organization for Marriage, started pointing to Laycock’s arguments as support for their own strongly anti-gay agendas, GetEQUAL decided to push back with a campaign of their own.

Through the activist group Virginia Student Power Network, GetEQUAL found two UVA students willing to take up the cause of calling out Laycock: rising fourth-year Greg Lewis and now-alum Stephanie Montenegro. Last week, the pair sent an open letter to Laycock asking him to consider the “real-world consequences that [his] work is having.” They also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking e-mails between Laycock and various right-wing and religious liberty groups.

Lewis said they’re not trying to smear Laycock, and they’re not trying to undermine academic freedom. They just want a dialogue, he said.

“I think it would be really constructive for him to hear how his work is being used to hurt the LGBTQ community,” said Lewis. “I don’t think he has any ill intent. I think he’s very thoughtful and moderate, and willing to hear both sides. But I think that everyone really has a lot to learn.”

Laycock said he’s anything but anti-gay.

“My position has always been that liberty in America is for everyone,” he said. “It’s for both sides in the culture wars. I believe that we should protect gays and lesbians in their right to live their own lives, including their right to get married, and we should protect religious conscientious objectors.”

He pointed out that he’s fought “tooth and nail” against some of the same religious rights groups he’s represented when he disagrees with them.

“I can’t help what other people do with my arguments,” he said. “I have told some of the folks on the religious right that their own claims to religious liberty would be taken more seriously if they would quit messing with the liberties of other people.”

Thomas C. Berg of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis has known and worked with Laycock for years, and said he has always held that the government should stay out of religious matters.

“In some cases, that leads to results that the left likes, and in some cases it leads to results that the right likes,” said Berg. He and Laycock made few friends among religious conservatives when they jointly filed an amicus brief in 2012’s landmark United States. v. Windsor case that urged the court to extend same-sex marriage benefits to every state in the union. Also not endearing him to the right: Laycock is preparing to argue another case before the nation’s highest court, this time on behalf of a Muslim prisoner’s right to wear a beard.

Laycock and others like him are used to criticism, Berg said; it goes hand-in-hand with defending civil liberties regardless of your personal feelings about the moral argument at hand.

“The positions all of us take as advocates are certainly open to vigorous criticism, and that’s just fine,” said Berg. “But that criticism should be accurate, it should be informed, and it should recognize that there is complexity in these issues.”

Just what kind of dialogue will grow out of the flap at UVA is still up in the air; Lewis said he’s been in touch with Laycock, but hasn’t set up a meeting. Meanwhile, GetEQUAL has launched a national e-mail campaign calling out Laycock for his role in shoring up the legal arguments of those who support “religious bigotry.”

“I take him at his word that he’s a moderate, that he supports marriage equality,” said Cronk. “The problem is his work is being used, potentially misused, potentially abused, by folks who do not show those values.”

For his part, Laycock said he’s happy to talk to the students, though, he said, “they picked a very odd way to go about the conversation.” 

  • lovinggunmaker

    “I can’t help what other people do with my arguments,” he said.“I have told some of the folks on the religious right that their own
    claims to religious liberty would be taken more seriously if they would
    quit messing with the liberties of other people.”

    Hear, hear! Likewise, the zero-tolerance position of those criticizing this professor is ultimately undermining their argument. You really need to pick your battles. Choosing an intellectually honest scholar with the utmost integrity as your target is a fool’s mission.

  • Chris Candide

    Sharpen the pitchforks!

  • Gmama

    It really is sad how intolerant leftist groups have become. They are anything but liberal. Why would you get private emails to start a dialogue? Sounds like a witch hunt, not

    • regexp

      Stop framing this as a “left” or “right” issue. Right wing groups have used the exact same tactics to go after Professors they don’t like.

      • K.P.

        Can you actually list some please?

        • LightswitchRaves

          See above. A pretty recent example, too! Cool, right?

          • K.P.

            If above means the witchhunt against Michael Mann, then that’s incredibly inapt as a parallel as Cuccinelli argued that Mann had actually committed a crime.

            Not that I’m defending Cuccinelli’s actions here but it is an AG’s job to investigate fraud.

      • Gmama

        Yeah I always hear that. It is lie. Maybe you can name a commencement speaker canceled because a right leaning group didn’t want them or a witch hunt at a public university from the right. How about a speaker on the left not allowed to speak or being harassed by the right?

        • LightswitchRaves

          Really? What about Cucinelli’s witch hunt against Mike Mann. How soon we forget…

          • Gmama

            His research grants were investigated.The hockey stick has been proven to be false and he refuses to release raw data. There is a big difference between launching and investigation and refusing to let someone speak.

          • LightswitchRaves

            Wow. “Horribly unscientific” = published in peer-reviewed journals…. Oh… okay. I understand now; I’m not quite sure you GET science. Good try though! Maybe next time!

      • John Williams

        Really? Name one. Can’t? Didn’t think so.

      • rocinante2

        Still waiting.

        • LightswitchRaves

          See above, you don’t have to wait any longer! It’s even a pretty recent example! Happy now? I’ll wait until you tell me why you’re not. =)

          • rocinante2

            Anecdote =/= data.

            Just sayin’.

            The left in the US has been politicizing science since at least the 60′s. In Europe, since the late 19th century. Soviet Russia? Trofim Lysenko and Andrei Zhadanov, if you’ve never heard of them, are only a Wikipedia/Google search away.

            If you think the partisan targeting of academics doesn’t point heavily in one ideological direction, you’re delusional. Academics themselves admit it and self-reporting (voting behavior, party identification, etc.) understates the imbalance, if anything.

            When there are more Marxists than Republicans on a college faculty, that’s a problem – for both balance and academic freedom.

          • rocinante2

            More crickets.

  • Brian

    The self-righteousness of the people trying to “start a conversation” (intimidate and isolate Prof. Sullivan) is nauseating.

    • Joe Joe

      FOIA requests? They’re not starting a conversation; they’re starting an Inquisition.

      Going after scholarship is censorship, and that’s what the LGBT community wants: complete censorship of anyone whose legitimate academic research hurts their feelings.

  • Adam Kissel
  • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

    Prof. Laycock’s response is pitch perfect. Bravo.

    Mr. Lewis says that he thinks “that everyone really has a lot to learn.” I wonder what he thinks he has to learn? That goal would require him to listen more than speak. I hope that he realizes that.

  • http://rhymeswithright.mu.nu RhymesWithRight

    Only that knowledge that the Left declares “double plus good” may be promulgated. The rest must be suppressed. How soon until we see an American “Cultural Revolution” akin to that of Mao’s China?

    • rocinante2

      Wingnuts unbellyfeel IngSoc! Minitrue duckspeak doubleplusgood.

  • George Purcell

    Greg Lewis and Stephanie Montenegro, for the rest of your lives you’ll wear the tag of being little Brown Shirt fascists.

    • nemomen

      Perfect irony.

  • docscience

    I wonder if UVA will refuse to respond to the FOIA as they did with Professor Mann’s climate-gate emails?

  • Win8-TrackBlows

    First two words in the title sound like a Grisham novel: “Sullivan’s Law”.

  • sukietawdry

    “I think it would be really constructive for him to hear how his work is being used to hurt the LGBTQ community,” said Lewis. “I don’t think he has any ill intent. I think he’s very thoughtful and moderate, and willing to hear both sides. But I think that everyone really has a lot to learn.”

    And you know who has the most to learn? You, that’s who, snotnose. Who are you to lecture anybody about anything, you little “rising fourth-year” pissant.

    • Win8-TrackBlows

      School’s almost over for them – now commences their education.

  • jburack

    These people are Nazis. I normally hate Hitler analogies and that is not what I am doing here. It is no analogy. Their mentality is the same exactly. They respect no difference of opinion at all and see no reason to allow any difference at all, and would very likely imprison and kill anyone who disagreed with them in the slightest if they were ever in a position to exercise such power. Anyone who thinks that characterization is unfair does not know the first thing about the history of the past century.

  • FutureLegacy

    “They just want a dialogue..”

    “Having a dialogue” and “being in conversation”: battle cries of intolerant LGBTQ bullies.

  • NDaniels

    There are no minorities when we recognize that every human person, from the moment of conception, is in being, a son or daughter, not an object of sexual desire/orientation. Every human person has the inherent unalienable Right to be treated with Dignity and respect in private as well as in public.

  • Brendan

    This is another article that is quick to mention that Laycock supports SB 1062 and the religious liberty of Hobby Lobby, but then fails to mention that Laycock also filed amicus briefs in support of the gay and lesbian couples in the recent DOMA and Proposition 8 cases.

    You don’t need to “take him at his word,” because his work has had positive “real world consequences” for LGBTQ individuals.

  • Azarkhan

    Those two students are left wing scum. Their only interest is in killing free speech.

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