CUA single-sex dorms spark legal controversy

Should have known. Catholic University of America president John Garvey barely announced his decision to reinstate single-sex dorms on the campus before someone decided to sue. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports:

John Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University Law School, says he intends to sue Catholic University over the same-sex plan, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Banzhaf told the Law Blog that his argument rests on the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, commercial spaces, housing and employment based on any number of factors, including sex, race, religion and marital status. Reinstating single-sex dorms would constitute gender discrimination, Banzhaf maintains.

The only exception allowed under the act is for “business necessities,” which means the Catholic University must demonstrate that it can operate the school and remain in business only by instituting a single-sex dorm policy, Banzhaf said. Given that the university has been offering coed housing for decades, it is unlikely the exception will apply in this case, he said.

What bothers me most about this is that the suit isn’t coming from students or parents (not that I’d be pleased in that case, either): It’s coming from a relatively unrelated professor. What’s it to Banzhaf if CUA implements a policy that is demonstrably advantageous for students?

According to a CUA statement, Garvey is “confident” the law does not require men and women to be housed in the same residence halls. I hope he’s right — for the sake of the students who stand to benefit (among other things, they’ll be less likely to face alcohol-related accidents or be depressed), but also because I couldn’t help but see in CUA’s decision an expression of traditional Catholic morality — a morality that explicitly warns against drunkenness and sex outside of marriage and that also suggests temptation is best avoided.

Garvey didn’t cite religious reasons for his decision, but perhaps he should have. If a Mennonite school can ban the national anthem, then surely a Catholic school can establish living norms that tend to support the teaching of the Catholic Church. As with Goshen College, CUA is a private school and, as such, should have the prerogative to establish its own rules in matters like this one. If students dislike those rules, they can vote with their feet — by, for example, attending nearby GW, Banzhaf’s own school, which recently enacted gender-blind housing. In fact, as I think about, perhaps Banzhaf ought to be happy CUA implemented this policy. If it is discriminatory, wouldn’t that tend to push more students away from Catholic and toward GW?

As I wrote before, CUA’s decision actually only serves to expand choice, giving students who might like to attend a university with gender-specific housing just such an option. Again, students who want the coed experience have plenty of options to choose from: More than 90 percent of college housing is coed.