Members of LGBTQ+ and progressive Law student organizations have expressed concerns over a Tuesday event sponsored by the Federalist Society at the School of Law. The event will feature Erin Hawley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom — a Southern Poverty Law Center-classified anti-LGBTQ+ hate group.
The event will preview 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a pending Supreme Court case. ADF is defending a Colarado business refusing to provide services to same-sex couples based on First Amendment rights in the lawsuit.
The Federalist Society is an organization designed to foster free and open debate and does not support any particular political position, per its website. It sponsors several speaker events each year, many of which have drawn criticism in the past. An event hosted by the group last February called “Does Women’s Equality Require Abortion” was criticized for being mischaracterized as a conversation when equal weight was not given to the pro-choice argument.
The Federalist Society declined to comment for this article.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists ADF as an anti-LBGTQ+ hate group on its website, citing the organization’s propagation of known falsehoods surrounding the LGBTQ+ community — including the presence of a “homosexual agenda” that threatens to destroy Christian society. The group has supported the criminalization of gay sex along with legislation allowing Christains to deny goods and services to LGBTQ+ individuals in the public sphere.
The National Lawyers Guild at U.Va. Law released a statement Saturday condemning the Federalist Society’s decision to host ADF, urging the group to cancel the event and requesting that the Law School release a statement condemning the views of ADF.
“There is a difference between encouraging healthy debate among students and requiring LGBTQ+ students to share spaces with an actual hate group that promotes these students’ silencing and erasure,'' the statement reads.
On the same day as the Federalist Society event, the National Lawyers Guild is also sponsoring an event titled “Building LGBTQ+ Awareness, Community and Solidarity.” The program will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For many students, such as Sabrina Surgil, pro-bono chair for Lambda Law Alliance and second-year Law student, this upcoming event poses a danger to the University’s LGBTQ+ community. LLA focuses on LGBTQ+ rights and representation.
“I don't know how LGBTQ+ students at U.Va. Law are expected to just do their work and go to class and participate and be able to engage with the curriculum in the same way that straight students are when people who are trying to erase and criminalize our entire existence are allowed the space to speak and to be normalized on such a scale at the school,” Surgil said.
Surgil said she thinks this event could have the impact of turning away prospective LGBTQ+ students from the University.
“[LGBTQ+ students] deserve to feel safe at school and we deserve to feel like our classmates respect us, but this is the opposite of respect — this is active hostility,” Surgil said.
Spencer Haydary, former LLA president and third-year Law student, echoed Surgil, adding that the event threatens the University's LGBTQ+ community.
“I don't feel safe here. I really don't,” Haydary said. “When people come like this, I don't feel safe as a queer person, especially with everything that's going on in this country, and how at a national level queer people are being targeted.”
Ariana Smith, National Lawyers Guild member and third-year Law student, connected the event to the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, as this ruling could potentially impact protections relating to same-sex marriage.
“It's very clear that this is a time in our country when queer rights are increasingly under attack,” Smith said.
Chris Schandevel, senior counsel on ADF’s Appellate Advocacy Team and 2012 Law alumnus, said despite controversy, this event is meant to encourage the free exchange of ideas and find common ground.
“We believe that our universities really are meant to be a marketplace for ideas, so we are just fundamentally committed to showing up, engaging, having conversations, talking about the issues, that are what we see as some of the most important issues for us as a society,” Schandevel said.
Smith said it is important to raise awareness about events like these and emphasized the need for the University to take action.
“There is significant room for our administration to take a more active role in protecting and speaking up for marginalized students,” Smith said. “Especially given the fact that U.Va. Law prides itself on being a school that is becoming a more and more diverse each year and actively recruits LGBTQ+ students under the guise of being a welcoming space for these community members.”
The University’s free speech policy states that it cannot prevent someone from speaking at an event on the basis of their content or viewpoint. In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, University spokesperson Brian Coy emphasized the University’s strong support of free expression.
“Much like schools, institutes, and other organizations, student groups are free to invite speakers of their choosing to speak at events,” Coy said. “Members of our community are also free to avoid those events or to speak in respectful opposition to the ideas shared at those events.”
In the pending case that will be discussed at the event, ADF attorneys are representing Lorie Smith, owner of 303 Creative, a design studio in Colorado. Smith has said she believes marriage to be between a man and a woman and would like to offer services in creating wedding websites for couples, but feels that she cannot support same-sex unions. Smith claims that the Colorado public accommodations law violates her free speech by compelling her to create art that is inconsistent with her personal beliefs, such as wedding websites for LGBTQ+ couples. The case is set to be argued before the Supreme Court in December.
For Schandevel, speaking about this particular case provides an opportunity to discuss community and cultural values.
“Are we going to try to be a society that requires people to either give up their beliefs or conform their beliefs to be more aligned with everyone else's?” Schandevel said.
ADF has previously defended members of varied religious faiths in religious freedom cases. Some of its more high-profile cases have involved business owners who declined service to same-sex couples on the grounds of freedom of speech or freedom of religion.