Progressives Eat Their Own in Virginia

Continuing their commitment to silence anyone who might stand in the way of their agenda, gay and lesbian groups are now beginning to criticize supporters who are thought to be insufficiently loyal. The most recent case involves Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, who is married to the University’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan.   A man with impeccable progressive credentials, Laycock has been a longtime supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage—filing an amicus brief in the 2012 Supreme Court case, United States v. Windsor that urged the court to extend same-sex marriage benefits to every state in the union.

His offense? Laycock supports religious liberty. According to news reports, Laycock wrote a letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in support of SB1062—a bill that if it had passed would have provided greater legal protections for individuals and businesses accused of violating state anti-discrimination laws. The bill was designed to protect those who cite religious reasons for not participating in same-sex weddings by baking cakes for same-sex couples, taking photographs of the same-sex wedding ceremonies, or hosting same-sex wedding receptions at their places of business. Professor Laycock’s letter to the Governor, which was signed by ten other law professors from institutions around the country, argued that “the Arizona law was a fair extension of the existing federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it didn’t pick winners: the government could still show that compliance with the law was necessary to serve a compelling government interest.”

Laycock has been consistent in his support for religious liberty. A few years ago, he filed an amicus brief in Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, a contraception coverage case currently at the U.S. Supreme Court. Supporting the religious owners of Hobby Lobby, Laycock argues that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects Hobby Lobby from being forced to pay for insurance coverage for the type of contraceptives (abortifacients) that the government is mandating them to cover.

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Although he has been committed to religious liberty causes for years, it was not until Laycock became involved in supporting the Arizona religious liberty bill that he began to draw the ire of the gay rights advocates. Heather Cronk, co-director of Berkeley, California’s LGBT activist group GetEQUAL told a reporter for that their organization tapped two University of Virginia students to help them file a Freedom of Information request seeking access to emails to and from Laycock’s university account to three conservative political organizations, along with phone records from the professor’s work cell phone. The request also seeks access to relevant emails sent to and from the professor’s assistant and the professor’s employment contract.

While Cronk claims that the request is not an attack on academic freedom, Laycock maintains that the intended consequence of the FOIA is “to intimidate and deter, only I’m not that easily intimidated or deterred.”

Maintaining that the LGBT community has the right to know “about ways that Professor Laycock might or might not have used university resources to work directly with some of the anti-LGBT and anti-choice groups that are now using his work to further their agenda,” Cronk complained that although “Professor Laycock has maintained a sort of academic agnosticism about the issues of LGBT equality and reproductive access, his work is nonetheless being used by individuals and organizations that have very clear and harmful agendas.” According to, Cronk wrote in an email: “We are absolutely concerned with protecting academic freedom—the rub is that, while a professor has every right to do academic work of his or her choosing, there must be a system of checks and balances when that work is being used to harm individuals.”

Campus Progressives Seek Intellectual Conformity
Cronk may have the power to impose a “system of checks and balances” on college campuses by using bullying tactics. Advocacy organizations like Cronk’s helped to purge many campuses more than a decade ago of those suspected of conservative or religious leanings. Being a pro-life faculty member or a traditional marriage supporter could no longer be allowed on these campuses. Increasingly, progressive students are pressuring colleges and universities to purge the ideologically impure from their midst. Haverford College recently disinvited Robert J. Birgeneau, the former Chancellor at UC Berkeley as commencement speaker. A long-time progressive, Birgeneau’s offense was to allow the Berkeley police to use force against Occupy protestors in Sproul Plaza in 2011—negating a career-long commitment to progressive causes including advocating for undocumented immigrants and promoting the LGBT community on campus.

Surprised by the students’ animosity toward Birgeneau, Haverford’s president, Daniel Weiss complained that his students were acting more like jurors “issuing a verdict” than a campus community extending an invitation for “shared learning.”  Weiss should have noticed that “shared learning” disappeared decades ago from colleges like Haverford.  He may have missed the memos on the well-qualified conservatives who were passed over for faculty jobs at his school.  Having served on administrative and faculty search committees for fifteen years as chair of a West Coast sociology department, I have seen those memos. The discrimination is real—and it occurred on campuses across the country.

The result is that there are few faculty conservatives, and even fewer conservatives in leadership positions. A few years ago, conservatives were encouraged to learn that one of two finalists for the presidency of Seton Hall was Monsignor Stuart Swetland, a faithful priest, and a Rhodes scholar who graduated first in his class from the US Naval Academy.  Swetland was uniquely qualified for the job as he has served as vice-president for Catholic identity and mission at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, and has been directly involved in revitalizing the Catholic identity on Catholic campuses like Seton Hall. But, signs of doom for Swetland were clear when the other candidate for the presidency withdrew his name from consideration, and a headline in the New Jersey Star-Ledger warned: “Anticipated Seton Hall President Thought to be a Conservative Choice.”  The search was suspended and although Seton Hall officials deny it, strong resistance from the faculty to hiring a faithful Catholic priest like Monsignor Swetland to lead the school had an impact on the failed search.

As the progressive standard of ideological purity moves farther to the left, more and more liberal faculty members find themselves targeted. “Conservative” is now defined as a professor who was once viewed as progressive because of her success in writing grants that brought social services to the poor in the neighborhood adjacent to the university, but when she began to voice concerns about allowing students at her Catholic college to function as abortion clinic escorts for internship credit, she became the enemy on her campus.  Even professional women who can point to a record of achievement in public life are often disparaged for ideological reasons. Thus Condoleezza Rice is pressured to withdraw as commencement speaker at Rutgers University while Christine Lagarde is opposed at Smith College because she allegedly participates in an imperialistic economic system as managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Even women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was denied an honorary degree from Brandeis University this year when students objected to her criticism of Islam.

We are all conservatives now. But, in some ways, this broadened definition of “conservative” may actually be a hopeful sign for the future. The hostility to intellectual freedom today is reminiscent of the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1600s in Massachusetts when the desperate hunt for more witches spread throughout New England and resulted in the witch hunters beginning to turn on each other. Respected clergymen and community leaders who had become swept up in hunting for witches began to be defined as witches themselves. The hysteria finally ended when the wife of the Massachusetts governor was accused of practicing witchcraft.

Defenders of academic freedom and true liberal learning need to fight back against the progressive witch hunters with their own FOIA requests and their own lawsuits. Until the witch hunters are themselves hunted down and exposed, the threats will continue.

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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