Headed for court?

Marriage | Miss California's public stand for traditional marriage may have cost her the Miss USA crown and could lead to a discrimination claim
by Alisa Harris
Posted 4/23/09, 12:00 am

Could Miss California, the beauty contestant who told a celebrity judge that marriage is between a man and a woman, sue the Miss USA pageant for damages? Legal analysts say it's a long shot-but other Californians who have experienced similar discrimination are already taking their cases to court.

In the last stages of the competition on Sunday, celebrity blogger and judge Perez Hilton asked Carrie Prejean if she believed that every state should follow Vermont in allowing gay marriage. Prejean replied, "I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that's how I was raised and that's how I think it should be-between a man and a woman."

Prejean, who ended up being the runner-up to Miss North Carolina, Kristen Dalton, said that she spoke from her religious convictions, adding that she believes her answer cost her the crown. Hilton (after publicly describing her with some ugly obscenities) told MSNBC, "That is not the kind of woman I want to be Miss USA." He admitted that her answer "did lose her the crown."

FOX News analyst Mercedes Colwin said if Prejean feels she received "psychic injury" due to discrimination, she could sue for monetary compensation. Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said she could certainly sue, but added that she doesn't seem to have a strong case.

Under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, "business establishments" are not allowed to discriminate based on "sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, or medical condition." McCaleb said California has fought litigation over this definition of "business establishment," but he believes that a court would find that the pageant is not an actual business establishment but an organization with the right to free speech: "We're not dealing with the government here. We're dealing with a private organization who's allowed to have its values, right or wrong."

To win a case Prejean would have to prove that her statement expressing her religious views caused her injury, including psychological impact or emotional distress. When you have other judges besides Hilton and other contestants added to the mix, it's a "very difficult chain of proof to make," McCaleb said. It's a "long-shot lawsuit," he said, "something she could explore, but it looks pretty flimsy to me."

Instead, he pointed out, this should be addressed in the "courtroom of public opinion," noting that the 7 million Californians who voted for Proposition 8 agree with Prejean. The reaction of Hilton and others "looks, feels, and smells like censorship," McCaleb added.

Even if Prejean's case is a long shot, other Californians say they have experienced discrimination for speaking against homosexual marriage, and they are taking their cases to court. Jonathan Lopez, for example, is a Christian student at the public college Los Angeles City College. Last November, Lopez spoke in his speech class, saying the definition of marriage was between a man and a woman, quoting the dictionary and Bible to support his view. He says his professor refused to let him finish the assignment, called him a "Fascist bastard," would not give him a grade, and wrote on his evaluation form that he should "ask God what your grade is." Lopez is suing for $5,000 in damages, saying the school officials violated his First and 14th Amendment rights.

Others say they've suffered discrimination and reprisals because of their decisions to financially support Proposition 8, since California law requires ballot committees to make public the address and employer of anyone who donates over $100. ProtectMarriage.com and NOM-California are challenging California's campaign finance law because supporters have received death threats, along with other obscene and threatening messages. Their property has been vandalized and the Knights of Columbus even underwent an anthrax scare when they received envelopes containing white powdery substances. Even supporters who gave as little as $100 have been blacklisted and boycotted.

"This poor young lady stands up for her Christian beliefs, gets flamed," McCaleb said. "But what it really reveals is just a huge homosexual agenda driven towards silencing people of faith, people who believe that marriage really is between one man and one woman."