The settlement came nearly a year after Jack Denton, who is Catholic, was ousted from his position as the student senate president after comments he made in a private text messaging group were made public.
In June 2020, amid the nationwide unrest and debate over racism, Denton advised fellow students in a Catholic Student Union messaging group not to donate to Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or Reclaim the Block, because those organizations “all advocate for things that are explicitly anti-Catholic.”
“BlackLivesMatter.com fosters a ‘queer affirming network,’ and defends trangenderism,” Denton wrote, when asked by a student what exactly he meant by that. “The ACLU defends laws protecting abortion facilities and sued states that restrict access to abortion. Reclaim the Block claims less police will make our communities safer and advocates for cutting [law enforcement] budgets. This is a little less explicit, but I think it’s contrary to the church’s teaching on the common good.”
Denton’s criticism caused an uproar on campus after his comments were leaked to the student senate. The FSU chapter of College Democrats denounced the messages, saying they “demonstrate a clear lack of respect for our black and LGBTQ+ students.” An online petition also circulated, demanding the student senate remove Denton for his “transphobic and racist behavior.”
Denton sued the FSU following his removal, alleging that he had been discriminated against for his Catholic beliefs.
The legal battle came to an end last week when the FSU agreed to settle the lawsuit. As part of the agreement, the university will pay Denton $1,050 in lost wages, $10,000 in compensatory damages and $84,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The FSU also agreed to post a public statement reinforcing that student government is open to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“Florida State University remains committed to protecting the rights of its students to hold and practice their religious beliefs free of persecution,” the statement reads. “Every student, no matter their religion, has the right to participate in student organizations and hold positions in student government.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative legal group representing Denton in the case, celebrated the victory.
“Public universities can’t single out and punish students for their religious beliefs,” ADF legal counsel Logan Spena said in a press release. “We are pleased that Florida State has finally affirmed its commitment to students’ First Amendment rights on campus. All students should be able to peacefully share their personal convictions without fear of retaliation.”
Denton graduated in December 2020 and now works as a legislative assistant to Republican state Rep. Larry C. Strickland of North Carolina, according to the state legislature’s website.