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Supreme Court rules against Christian legal group

June 29, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 28 that a Christian student group must accept gays and non-Christians as members if it wants to be officially recognized by a public university.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court’s 5-4 majority, said the “all-comers” policy at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law is “reasonable” and “viewpoint neutral.”

The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, pitted a campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society against the law school’s nondiscrimination policy that requires registered student organizations to accept any student as a member or potential leader.

Registered student groups receive limited funding from the school, which is supported by public tax dollars.

The law school had argued successfully in lower courts that the Christian group was seeking special treatment in seeking an exemption from the rules. The Christian legal group — which bars gays and non-Christians from leadership positions — argued that if it followed the school policy, a student who doesn’t believe the Bible could lead its Christian Bible studies.

Ginsburg said the school had made an appropriate decision in deciding not to grant an exemption.

“Hastings, caught in the crossfire between a group’s desire to exclude and students’ demand for equal access, may reasonably draw a line in the sand permitting all organizations to express what they wish but no group to discriminate in membership,” she wrote.

She was joined in her opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Stevens, writing in a concurring opinion as he retired from the court, added that the broader nondiscrimination policy on which the all-comers student club policy is based is “plainly legitimate.”

But Justice Samuel Alito, in a harshly worded dissent, questioned the majority opinion, saying it upholds a principle of “no freedom of expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country’s institutions of higher learning.”

He said the decision, which he hoped would be an “aberration,” would be a “serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.”

“There are religious groups that cannot in good conscience agree in their bylaws that they will admit persons who do not share their faith, and for those groups, the consequence of an accept-all-comers policy is marginalization,” Alito wrote.

Ethan P. Schulman, a lawyer who represented the school in lower court arguments and served as a co-counsel before the Supreme Court, said he was surprised by Alito’s dissent.

“There’s nothing in the record to suggest that the all-comers policy was motivated by political correctness, much less hostility towards religious groups,” he said.

Gregory S. Baylor, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, who helped represent the Christian Legal Society before the high court, said the ruling has not ended the conflict over nondiscrimination policies.

“Long-term, the decision puts other student groups across the country at risk, and we will continue to fight for their constitutional rights,” he said in a statement. “The Hastings policy actually requires CLS to allow atheists to lead its Bible studies and the College Democrats to accept the election of Republican officers in order for the groups to be recognized on campus. We agree with Justice Alito in his dissent that the court should have rejected this as absurd.”

Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said the decision should “deeply trouble all those who cherish religious freedom.”

“Today, the Supreme Court’s majority has given state universities a green light and a roadmap to condition a religious group’s rights on the state’s preferred beliefs,” he said in a statement.

Steven R. Shapiro, legal director for the ACLU, said the involvement of public money at a public university demands a different standard.

“While all student groups are free to meet and hold their own beliefs, a public university has the right to enact policies that refuse to officially recognize and fund groups that deliberately exclude other members of the student body,” he said.

In other business, the Supreme Court also:

  • Declined to consider an appeal by the Vatican to dismiss a case that seeks to hold church leaders accountable for transferring abusive priests from one assignment to another. Vatican attorneys had argued the Holy See holds diplomatic immunity from such claims.Declined to take a case involving a third-grade student who was barred from distributing candy cane pens with a religious message during a class party.
  • Declined to take a case involving a third-grade student who was barred from distributing candy cane pens with a religious message during a class party.

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