(CNSNews.com) - If Jesus washed his disciples' feet at a Georgia college in 2007, he'd likely be accused of "hazing."
That's the position a Christian ministry at Savannah State University has found itself in, after it washed the feet of its new members. The campus ministry Commissioned II Love (C2L) was also accused of "harassing" students by sharing their faith.
Washing of feet is a symbolic gesture of servitude in the Christian faith, following the example of Jesus, who washed the disciples' feet during their last meal before his crucifixion, as recounted in the New Testament gospel of John (13:1-17).
The Christian group says the foot washing ritual "serves as a symbol of purity, a charge to share the gospel, and an act of service to others ... [it] is not a condition of gaining membership, status, or acceptance into C2L or holding an office."
The explanation appears in a lawsuit brought by C2L against SSU after the group was suspended for "harassment" and "hazing."
SSU last year suspended all C2L's activities during an investigation into the charges. Shortly afterwards, however, when some of its members attended an off-campus Christian music event, the group was formally expelled from campus for violating the suspension.
According to the complaint before the U.S. district court in the southern district of Georgia, several SSU students organized a petition to have C2L shut down, accusing it of having a "cult-like mentality."
The SSU student handbook defines hazing as follows: "to subject a student to an activity which endangers or is likely to endanger the physical health of a student, regardless of a student's willingness to participate in such activity."
The handbook also states: "No rights are more highly regarded ... than the first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech [and] freedom of expression."
"[SSU] will not exclude any person from participation in its programs or activities on the basis of ... religion."
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) - a Christian legal alliance - and another group, the National Legal Foundation, believe that the university is not holding to these statements in suspending C2L.
An ADF attorney on the case, David French, told Cybercast News Service the incident was the latest in a recurring trend of religious discrimination on campus.
"This fits in with a larger national pattern where colleges are becoming increasingly inventive in finding ways to get rid of Christian student organizations," French said.
"It used to be that there was one primary method of doing that ... to accuse a Christian student group of discrimination whenever it said that its members or leaders needed to be Christian," he said.
"Now we are finding that at other schools, they will use almost any reason - or sometimes even no reason at all - to get rid of Christian student groups."
"We want this group back on campus and a clear message sent [to college officials] that you must respect the First Amendment rights of students," French said.
SSU Communications Director Loretta Heyward declined to comment on the litigation Thursday. She said the school has almost 60 student organizations, including "several" that are faith-based.
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