April 15, 2010
WASHINGTON (RNS) -- Can a public law school exclude a Christian student group from recognition because the group's rules forbid gays and non-Christians as members in violation of the school's anti-discrimination code?
The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh constitutional questions around universities and religious rights when it hears arguments next Monday (April 19) in a case centered on the University of California's law school in San Francisco.
The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, pits a campus chapter of a Christian legal group against the Hastings College of the Law and its 20-year-old nondiscrimination policy.
"Our main argument is that Christian student groups shouldn't be forced to deny their faith in order to receive equal treatment on campus," said Gregory Baylor, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is helping represent the CLS chapter before the high court.
"At stake in this case is the right of every student group to organize around shared commitments."
The law school lists more than 60 registered student organizations on its Web site, including groups for Catholic and Jewish students as well as golf and ballroom dance clubs. As official student groups, they have access to meeting space, e-mail communication with the student body and limited funding for some activities.
Ethan Schulman, the San Francisco attorney who successfully argued on Hastings' behalf in two lower courts, said the CLS chapter is the only group that has sought an exemption from the anti-discrimination policy.
"What CLS is seeking here is not equal treatment," said Schulman.
"What they're seeking is special treatment. They're seeking to be exempt from a policy that applies to every other group."
Though the case at first glance centers around student rights and the First Amendment, some national organizations are taking a broader view. Their friend-of-the-court briefs suggest the court's ruling could influence public discussion of gay rights and rules about religious hiring.
The CLS considers "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" to be inconsistent with its statement of faith. Two gay groups -- the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders -- argued in a joint brief that CLS's membership policy is blatant anti-gay discrimination.
"It would be like saying if a white supremacist group said we'll admit blacks as long as they admit they're inferior, or if a male group said we'll admit women as long as they admit they're inferior and their place is in the home," said Cliff Sloan, a Washington lawyer who filed the brief for the gay organizations.
Baylor, the former director of CLS's Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said the CLS rules for official members and campus leaders refer to premarital and extramarital sexual activity, not just homosexual conduct.
"CLS has a rule that says its representatives should abide by Christian standards of sexual morality, and that means a representative of CLS should not be engaged in activity that most Christians have considered to be immoral for two millennia," he said. "The bottom line is that Hastings refused to recognize CLS because of what it believes."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also weighed in, urging the court to consider the consequences of too broad a ruling in the case.
"If this court treats (or allows Hastings to continue to treat) CLS's moral and religious opposition to extramarital sexual conduct as 'discrimination,' CLS and very many others of like mind will be stigmatized as bigots and correspondingly marginalized and punished by government," the bishops warned.
The Association of Christian Schools International, which was joined by more than a dozen universities and ministries in a brief supporting the campus group, warned of possible "significant implications" on rights related to religious hiring.
"... (I)f this court determines that CLS does not have any constitutional right to religious association in the context of this case, then there will be little constitutional protection of religious employers, particularly if they receive any kind of government benefit, use government buildings such as schools and convention centers and/or participate in government-funded programs," they argued.
While supporters argued for CLS's right to associate with participants based on its beliefs, the Anti-Defamation League and several other groups said the rules are different when public funds are involved.
"Under this novel standard, as relates to religious groups, the federal government and the states will effectively be stripped of their long-recognized powers and discretion to condition the grant of taxpayer funds on compliance with neutral nondiscrimination policies," the ADL and others said.
Lawyers for both parties in the case say it will be up to the court to determine if it wants to address the case's broader ramifications.
"At some level, we have a conflict between associational freedom and nondiscrimination ideas," Baylor said. "The conflict goes on in other contexts besides public university groups."
Schulman said CLS's arguments, if accepted by the justices, could create a "serious risk" that discriminatory organizations -- including hate groups -- would have to be subsidized by public institutions.
"It's a very troubling precedent, if they were to prevail, that would be established," he said.
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.