In their lawsuit against Georgia Tech, Malhotra and her co-plaintiff, a devout Jewish student named Orit Sklar, request unspecified damages. But they say their main goal is to force the university to be more tolerant of religious viewpoints. The lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on religious liberty cases.
Malhotra said she had been reprimanded by college deans several times in the last few years for expressing conservative religious and political views. When she protested a campus production of "The Vagina Monologues" with a display condemning feminism, the administration asked her to paint over part of it.
She caused another stir with a letter to the gay activists who organized an event known as Coming Out Week in the fall of 2004. Malhotra sent the letter on behalf of the Georgia Tech College Republicans, which she chairs; she said several members of the executive board helped write it.
The letter referred to the campus gay rights group Pride Alliance as a "sex club … that can't even manage to be tasteful." It went on to say that it was "ludicrous" for Georgia Tech to help fund the Pride Alliance.
The letter berated students who come out publicly as gay, saying they subject others on campus to "a constant barrage of homosexuality."
"If gays want to be tolerated, they should knock off the political propaganda," the letter said.
The student activist who received the letter, Felix Hu, described it as "rude, unfair, presumptuous" — and disturbing enough that Pride Alliance forwarded it to a college administrator. Soon after, Malhotra said, she was called in to a dean's office. Students can be expelled for intolerant speech, but she said she was only reprimanded.
Still, she said, the incident has left her afraid to speak freely. She's even reluctant to aggressively advertise the campus lectures she arranges on living by the Bible. "Whenever I've spoken out against a certain lifestyle, the first thing I'm told is 'You're being intolerant, you're being negative, you're creating a hostile campus environment,' " Malhotra said.
Granted, Malhotra sounds like your classic bigot. She is clearly intolerant. But that's her right. She's in no position of power. I don't feel harassed, just annoyed.
And patronized. If you're going to be a free speech absolutist, you're required to suck it up when the haters spew. Obviously, Malhotra is gifted at sticking her foot in her mouth. Let her keep doing it, instead of creating a martyr.
Otherwise, this is murky territory.
In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to "respect and value the differences among us." As long as the employee wasn't harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled.
That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle. The verses, clearly visible from the hall, harassed gay employees and made it difficult for the company to meet its goal of attracting a diverse workforce, the judge ruled.
In the public schools, an Ohio middle school student last year won the right to wear a T-shirt that proclaimed: "Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder!" But a teen-ager in Kentucky lost in federal court when he tried to exempt himself from a school program on gay tolerance on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs.
"There really is confusion out there," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, which is affiliated with Vanderbilt University. "Finding common ground sounds good. But the reality is, a lot of people on all sides have a stake in the fight."
At the heart of this story, though, lies yet another example of the national victimization crusade. Despite being the dominant group in this country, many Christians have become convinced they are routinely persecuted. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 64% of American adults — including 80% of evangelical Christians — agreed with the statement "Religion is under attack in this country."
The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. "Christians," he said, "are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian."
Or, more to the point, the right to hate gays.
Still, I'll defend their right to say it (but not act on it). Let society monitor itself, and leave the spech codes to the propagandists.