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Lawsuit over gay-marriage speech at L.A. City College spurs reactions

March 03, 2009|Gale Holland
  • Los Angeles City College student Ruben Rivera started a campus group last month called Rainbow Alliance, a gay unity club he hopes will be a haven for anybody who feels different.
Los Angeles City College student Ruben Rivera started a campus group last… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Ruben Rivera was dropping off papers to charter a new gay unity club at Los Angeles City College one recent day when he spotted half a dozen middle-aged people milling around the campus quad.

"God Hates Gays," their signs read. Memories came flooding back of fleeing New Jersey after his mother discovered his sexual orientation and threw him out of the family.

"I was almost transported to my adolescence in Vineland, N.J., feeling less than, feeling unworthy, feeling ashamed," said Rivera, 36, of Los Feliz.

The protesters appeared in support of Jonathan Lopez, a Christian student who has sued the Los Angeles Community College District, alleging that an instructor kept him from finishing a classroom speech about his religious beliefs and opposition to same-sex unions. Lopez has said he was discriminated against because of his religious views.

The late-November incident came at the height of emotional protests against the passage of Proposition 8, the gay-marriage ban. Lopez said the instructor, John Matteson, called him a "fascist bastard," told him to "ask God" for his grade and later threatened to retaliate against him for complaining. College officials said in court filings that disciplinary proceedings have begun against Matteson, but declined to be more specific.

The suit, filed Feb. 12, has inspired a wave of blog and media commentary. Lopez's lawyer from the Alliance Defense Fund, co-founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, has appeared on the popular Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor."

A dozen nasty e-mails winged their way to a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York biographer, who had the singular misfortune of sharing a name and occupation with Lopez's instructor.

"Some of them threatened my life," said the New York-based John Matteson, an associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Attorney David French said he and Lopez didn't know the protesters or approve of their methods. He said he believed that Lopez's suit struck a chord because conservative and religious voices are often silenced on liberal college campuses. The suit seeks to strike down a university code prohibiting speech that could offend classmates.

"If you take a position outside campus orthodoxy, you can be punished," French said.

Last year, the Alliance Defense Fund won a court injunction stopping San Francisco State University from punishing pro-Israel students who stomped on a flag bearing the name Allah, according to court papers French supplied.

"We've seen this on campuses across the country," French said.

Carl Friedlander, president of the L.A. City College faculty union, said there is no monolithic ideology at the campus. Several instructors said they were disturbed by the conduct described in Lopez's lawsuit but emphasized that they hadn't heard Matteson's side, Friedlander said.

Exactly what Lopez said in Matteson's class is unclear. Lopez turned down an interview request, Matteson did not respond to e-mails, and French said he did not know enough about the speech to detail it.

Lopez recited two Bible verses that had nothing to do with homosexuality, French said. He said Lopez also repeated a dictionary definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman and cited a passage from Genesis: "A man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh."

Two students said the speech disturbed them, and one called Lopez's presentation "hateful propaganda," according to court filings.

College President Jamillah Moore said hot-button issues including immigration are regularly debated on campus without incident. Instructors are responsible for controlling their classrooms, Moore said.

Friedlander said racial epithets and bigotry should not be tolerated in class. "Certain kinds of speech, I would not allow," he said.

On campus this week, there was little evidence of anti-religious bigotry. At lunchtime, one church group from nearby Koreatown stumped for an upcoming Bible study course. Another handed out plates of rice and salad to students.

Janette Puerto, 18, of Koreatown, one of the diners, said she feels comfortable sharing her religious views on campus. "I'm a Christian. Let the world know," she said.

Rivera, meanwhile, said he hoped that his club, Rainbow Alliance, would include men and women, gay and straight, and would serve as a haven for anybody who feels different.

And as officials moved the Lopez demonstrators to a campus free-speech zone, Rivera distributed leaflets for the club. Rivera said that many students grabbed them, telling him, "Good job, we're glad to see you're here."

The demonstrators may turn out to be his best recruiters, he said.

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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