A private Christian high school has the right to expel students who it believes are having a lesbian relationship, a California appeals court has ruled.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld California Lutheran High School's right, as a private, religious organization, to exclude students based on sexual orientation.
A lawyer for two girls who were expelled said he would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
"They're giving private religious schools carte blanche to discriminate on any basis," said Kirk Hanson, the lawyer for the two girls, who were identified in court papers only as Jane Doe and Jane Roe.
The appellate court found that the school was not considered a business under the state's civil rights law, which bans discrimination by businesses, but not by private social or religious organizations. Anti-discrimination laws also apply to public schools.
The court relied on a 1998 California Supreme Court ruling that held that the Boy Scouts of America was a social organization that had the right to exclude gays and atheists.
In this case, the court said the purpose of the school was to educate students within a Christian framework.
"The whole purpose of sending one's child to a religious school is to ensure that he or she learns even secular subjects within a religious framework," the court wrote.
The case is the latest clash over gay rights in California, which has been embroiled in a political and legal fight over gay marriage, and the latest controversy over the impact of students' online activity outside of school.
According to Lambda Legal, a gay and lesbian rights organization, one third of students experienced physical harassment at schools because of their sexual orientation.
"I don't think this ruling is terribly significant from a legal point of view," said Shannon Price Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "But I think the behavior of the school administrators was appalling. When adults engage in that kind of labeling, it can be extremely harmful to young people."
Hanson said his clients, who are now 18 and in college, did not want to comment on the case. He declined to discuss their sexual orientation.
John McKay, a lawyer for the school, said the ruling upheld the school's First Amendment rights of association.
"Why would somebody who believes in God want somebody at the school who doesn't believe in God?" McKay asked. "That's the other side of the coin."
The two girls, then 16, sued the school after it expelled them for having a "bond of intimacy" that was "characteristic of a lesbian relationship." School policy says students may be expelled for "engaging in immoral or scandalous conduct, whether on or off campus," including homosexuality.
The case began in 2005, when a student told a teacher that the two girls, who are not identified in court papers, said they were in love with each other.
The teacher checked the MySpace pages of all the girls in the class and found that one plaintiff had the screen name "Scandalous love!" and listed her sexual orientation as "bi." The other girl went by the screen name "Truley in [heart] with You" and listed her sexual orientation as "not sure."
The MySpace pages described being in love with each other, according to the court ruling.
The school's pastor, Gregory Bork, pulled the girls out of class and asked them if they were bisexual, had kissed each other or done anything inappropriate.
At one point, according to one of the girls, Bork "got very close and he said, 'Have you ever touched [Jane Doe] in ... any inappropriate ways?' And he looked me up and down when he asked that."
McKay said Bork denied looking at the girl in an inappropriate way.
According to Bork, the girls admitted they had hugged and kissed each other and told other students they were lesbians. The girls said they admitted only that they loved each other as friends. The girls never disclosed their sexual orientation during the lawsuit, McKay said.