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UVA Scholar Responds To Student Attacks

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A University of Virginia law professor is responding to allegations that his work is being used to attack the gay and lesbian community.

In an open letter to professor Douglas Laycock this week, two UVA undergraduate students - third-year Greg Lewis and fourth-year Stephanie Montenegro - say his work is being used to legally discriminate against women and LGBT communities across the country. The letter reads, "Most recently your legal work on the topic of 'religious liberty' has been used as a basis for religious discrimination bills like the one that went into effect in Mississippi and nearly in Arizona."

The letter also cites a brief Laycock filed in the Hobby Lobby U.S. Supreme Court case as part of an effort "to resist the requirement of the Affordable Care Act that employers cover the cost of contraception."

Laycock, a leading religious liberty scholar who has argued several times before the Supreme Court, says these latest attacks are nothing new.

"I think it goes with the territory," Laycock said. "If you write about controversial things, from time to time you're going to be attacked by one side or the other. I actually get it from both sides."

Laycock says he has long supported gay rights and religious freedoms, despite the fact the two issues sometimes come into conflict with one another. When it comes to his positions on those sensitive legal issues, he worries some of his work has been taken out of context.

"There's a whole range of positions here, there is no anti-gay rights position in any of them," Laycock said.

Responding to students' calls for open and transparent dialogue, Laycock says he is always open to discussing his work.

Below is the entire letter to Laycock from students Lewis and Montenegro:

Professor Laycock,

In recent years, you have become one of the nation’s leading legal voices advocating for religious liberty. Your work has been featured prominently in law journals, in mainstream media, and by the religious right specially in the past two years.

As students at the University of Virginia, we have become increasingly worried about how your work is being used, and possibly mis-used, by those who oppose the ability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans and women to fully and authentically live without interference from the government.

Most recently, your legal work on the topic of “religious liberty” has been used as a basis for religious discrimination bills like the one that went into effect in Mississippi and nearly in Arizona. Your work has also been used in efforts to resist the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employers cover the cost of contraception. As leaders on the UVA campus, we strongly believe in engaging

in dialogue and, equally as important, for professors to fully understand the implications of their academic work.

Your recent legal theories around religious liberty have occasionally placed you on the same side as progressives in terms of free speech and public prayer. But your work has also been cited, by you and by others, in attempts to erode progress for LGBT Americans and to erode protections for women. These efforts to roll back progress and protections for LGBT folks and women has drastic, real-life consequences.

In Virginia and across the country, LGBT youth struggle with acceptance by their family, their friends, and their faith community. Sometimes that acceptance is offered up in love, but not often enough. Instead, LGBT youth often face physical abuse, emotional abuse, and even homelessness. While LGBT youth make up about 10% of all youth, approximately 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, a vastly disproportionate share. Of those youth, nearly 70% experienced family rejection while over 50% experienced family abuse leading up to their homeless state.

Meanwhile, women in Virginia and across the country also struggle under the very real need for affordable and accessible access to reproductive choices.

While there is vast public support (nearly 70%) for requiring birth control coverage in health plans, having access to affordable and accessible birth control is a real financial issue for young women in particular. One in three women voters report having struggled with the cost of prescription birth control, and those numbers rise dramatically among African American women (54%) and Latina women (57%). For many women, the need for healthcare that includes birth control is the difference between paying rent and reproductive health, a choice that no individual should have to make.

While academic freedom has immense value within the walls of the classroom, we’re writing this open letter to you in order to gauge your understanding of the real-world consequences that your work is having, and to invite you into a dialogue with UVA students who are negatively impacted by your work. It is vitally important to balance the collective work of our academic community with the collective impact of that work in communities across the country.

Furthermore, it is vitally important for this conversation to be open and transparent. Too often, the academy demands all our attention into our own writing and research, without allowing us the time or opportunity to interact with those in the wider community. We wanted to issue this invitation in order to break that habit, and to authentically engage you and the wider Charlottesville community in this open and transparent conversation.

We hope that you’re open to accepting this invitation and engaging us in this conversation. We look forward to the dialogue.

Sincerely,

Greg Lewis, UVA College of Arts and Science Class of 2015, Student Activist for LGBT Equality

Stephanie Montenegro, UVA College of Arts and Science Class of 2014, Student Activist for Reproductive Access/Health

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