Pride Center Credit: BJ Yebisu / Mustang News

Declan Galli sat down at his desk in his Poly Canyon Village apartment on Jan. 10. The sun began to set, concluding Galli’s first week of winter quarter. The Cal Poly sophomore majoring in both city and regional planning and music opened his computer to check his email. 

He opened a message from Americans United and American Atheists, two national organizations dedicated to protecting separation between church and state.

The organizations were looking for Galli to serve as a co-plaintiff to represent in a lawsuit attempting to overturn a regulation by former President Donald Trump’s Department of Education. The regulation was enacted on Nov. 23.

The lawsuit alleges that the regulation forces universities to fund discriminatory groups on campus. 

Trump’s rule allows religious groups on campus to suspend membership from people they do not see fit. Public universities are still required to fund these groups, according to an Americans United press release

This regulation recedes nondiscrimination policies that several colleges have established to prevent clubs from excluding students based on race, sexuality, gender identity, or any other characteristic. 

As an openly gay student, anti-LGBTQ discrimination could put Galli at risk.

Since attending Cal Poly, he has experienced homophobic rhetoric from students and professors on campus.

Considering his position in the trial, Galli reflected on incidents that have happened at Cal Poly, including verbal harassment against himself and his friends.

“At the time, it shook the ground that myself and my friends were standing on about how there really are people out there who are truly anti-gay because at Cal Poly it can sometimes feel like there aren’t as many outward bigots,” Galli said.

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier said that the university believes in providing a just and equitable campus community for all students, although he was not able to comment on the specific litigation.

“Generally, I can tell you that Cal Poly is strongly committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity… and does not tolerate discrimination of any type within its campus community,” Lazier wrote in an email. 

Galli says that constant fear remains in the back of his mind because of what’s happened to the LGBTQ community all across the country, despite Cal Poly’s attempt to prevent homophobic actions in classes and on campus. 

Bullying and discrimination against LGBTQ students have been a long-standing part of American history. Not only does this treatment result in depression and low self-esteem, but it has also been a cause of death, as seen with the homicide of Matthew Shephard in 1993, and more recently with the suicide of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby in 2019. 

While Galli acknowledges his privilege as a white-passing Latinx, gender-conforming male, not all members of the LGBTQ community benefit from their physical appearance, placing them in positions facing bigger threats.  

“There are definitely people who get targeted, especially members of the trans community are not safe in SLO,” he said. “But, in some instances, it can feel like a distant problem until it happens again, until it happens here.”

Homophobia and discrimination are not isolated events and continue to happen every day. 

After initially disregarding the email, Galli decided to run the idea past his peers, many of whom had received the email as well. The more he thought about it, the more intriguing the opportunity sounded. Just as the case needed Galli’s help, Galli felt he equally needed the case to be won for his own rights to be protected. 

The Americans United and American Atheists asked Galli to perform as the co-plaintiff to the Secular Students Alliance, a non-profit representing atheist and non-religious students. The Secular Students Alliance is acting as the primary plaintiff in the case. 

A few days after reading the email, Galli responded, announcing his agreement to participate as an additional plaintiff alongside the Secular Students Alliance. 

Galli and his cohorts officially filed suit against the Department of Education on Jan. 19.

The Americans United, American Atheists and the Secular Students Alliance found Galli through the Pride Center’s website, where Galli works. The organizations were looking for someone who might have standing in the lawsuit and offered to represent him in the case.

“And in a broader sense, [represent] every student on campus who holds an underrepresented identity,” Galli said.

Although Galli is filing suit as an individual separate from Cal Poly and university organizations, he is a highly involved activist on and off-campus.

Galli is currently a member of the club Sunrise SLO, an environmental organization, and serves as a student assistant at the Cal Poly Pride Center. At the Pride Center, Galli helps advertise various support groups and works to educate students and faculty about pronouns and allyship. One of his projects is an aggregation of resources for members of the queer community who practice religion.

Galli’s queer identity has greatly impacted the development of his Christian faith. Growing up as a member of the Roman Catholic church, Galli struggled with their anti-LGBTQ beliefs, among others. Before Galli came out, he and his mom decided to leave the Roman Catholic church. In search of a more inclusive option, they found and joined the Episcopal church, which is nationally recognized as LGBTQ affirming.

Coming to college, Galli said this meant he could join any Episcopal church with the comfort of knowing that it was religiously LGBTQ affirming. But, with Trump’s new regulation, inclusivity of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities is now at stake. 

“This rule could make it harder for the school to make people feel safe, to make members of the LGBTQ community feel safe,” he said. 

While the regulation was enacted under the previous administration, the rule will still continue to function under President Joe Biden’s administration until it is officially overturned. 

According to one of the attorneys representing Galli, Geoffrey Blackwell, the regulation forces public colleges to fund campus groups and organizations that discriminate, but that’s not all.

“What’s worse, is that because students pay fees that support student groups and clubs, the students are forced to pay for this discrimination,” Blackwell said.

Like students across the country, Galli pays tuition and student fees. These fees contribute to the same pool of money that is used to fund student groups and clubs, Blackwell said. As a result, religious student groups supported by Galli’s fees could still exclude him for being gay.

For Galli, Trump’s ruling is much more personal than a financial conflict of interest. As a member of the Episcopalian church and the LGBTQ community, Galli said he feels passionate about protecting the rights of those with marginalized identities to participate in their freedom of speech and religion.

“It’s about a Trump administration rule that would force colleges to choose between protecting students or losing federal funding in clubs and organizations,” Galli said. “So basically, it would require Cal Poly to fund any group that says under the guides of religion that they want to advocate against LGBTQ people.”

The lawsuit says that the Department of Education failed to uphold its obligation to provide equal and welcoming access for all students, and poorly interprets the guidelines of the First Amendment.

“Colleges and universities have a critical interest in creating inclusive, welcoming places of learning. Nondiscrimination requirements serve that end,” the case documents say. “Sadly, the U.S. Department of Education and its former Secretary, Betsy DeVos, apparently disagree with those claims.”

According to a press release from the Secular Students Alliance, Betsy DeVos had no authority to grant the regulation into action. The statement says that the law contradicts the Constitution and nondiscriminatory statutory laws.

The case is expected to move forward quickly, Blackwell said. According to him, the Department of Education went far beyond its legal authority under an incorrect interpretation of the First Amendment.

“We don’t think that it will take a lengthy case for the court to see just how out of bounds the Department’s actions were and to decide the case favorably,” Blackwell said. Further action on the case is currently in session.

On Feb. 23, the plaintiffs filed a motion arguing that the Department of Education did not have legal authority to make the rule being challenged in the lawsuit, Blackwell said. This is a legal question that involves no factual disputes, allowing the court to make a decision quickly. If the decision is made favorably to the plaintiffs, then the regulatory change made by Trump’s Department of Education will be reversed. The Department of Education has until May 14 to respond.

Student ministry Ratio Christi filed a motion to intervene in the case as a defendant on Feb. 18. Ratio Christi will be represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a freedom of religion organization. 

“[Alliance Defending Freedom] and Ratio Christi misconstrue our lawsuit and say we are arguing that religious groups ‘have no First Amendment rights to access campus resources,’” Blackwell said. “That is flatly untrue.”

Blackwell said that the Department of Education’s rule requires public colleges to afford solely religious student groups a preferential exception from the requirements that apply to all other student groups. Such a rule has no basis in the law, he said.

 Galli said he’s going to do his best to make a positive change for underrepresented folks at Cal Poly, and hopefully throughout the nation.

“That’s why I’m doing this lawsuit. That’s why I’m doing the work that I do,” Galli said. “I want to change the world that we’re in to be accepting, and to change hearts and minds.” 

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