Critics see ruling on Christian Legal Society as blow to religious freedom

Attorney Sam Casey of Advocates International.
Attorney Sam Casey of Advocates International.


Critics lamented the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Monday to dismiss a lawsuit from a Christian student organization seeking to be officially recognized by a California public university. The group sought to overturn a previous court ruling which sided with the school and denied recognition to the organization because of its statement of faith.

The confrontation between the Christian Legal Society (CLS) and the University of California's Hastings College of Law first began when the group was denied school recognition because of the group's statement of faith. The statement prevents anyone who is “unrepentantly” engaging “in sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman” from being a group leader or member.

UC Hastings charged that this provision violates the school's ban on “sexual orientation” discrimination, despite the fact that CLS's statement of faith is based on the conduct of members of any sexual orientation and not on one's “immutable status.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Christian group's First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college's nondiscrimination policy.

In September of 2004, CLS asked UC Hastings if the group could be exempt from the religion and sexual orientation sections of the university's nondiscrimination policy. Adhering to those sections of the policy, CLS chapter members argued, would force the group to admit members and elect leaders who held beliefs and engaged in conduct contrary to the mission and purpose of the group.

The court's opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said UC Hastings' decision was reasonable because the university requires all groups bearing its endorsement to be nondiscriminatory. Ginsburg was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in ruling in favor of UC Hastings.

Several critics lamented the Supreme Court's Monday ruling, as well as the media coverage of the decision for falsely depicting CLS's stance.

Sam Casey, General Counsel for Advocates International (AI), a Christian organization that helps represent law students globally, told CNA in a phone interview that contrary to some media reports, CLS did not claim in their statement of faith that homosexuals were not allowed membership.

The Associated Press reported today that an “ideologically split Supreme Court ruled Monday that a law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join.”

Rebuffing this claim, Casey stated that no homosexual students have ever been dismissed or barred from the group, but cohabiting heterosexuals have been. The real issue, he explained, is a matter of chastity and living according to Christian principles versus one's sexual orientation alone.

Casey also cited concern that the California University is discriminating against CLS as it is the first group to ever be singled out and held to the school's nondiscrimination policy.

Disagreement with the ruling was also voiced by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote in a strongly worded dissent that the ruling was “a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.”

“Our proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express 'the thought that we hate,'”Alito said, quoting a previous court decision. “Today's decision rests on a very different principle: no freedom for expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country's institutions of higher learning.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins also criticized the ruling, adding it “throws student organizational mission statements out the door, as everyone at a state school with an 'all-comers' policy, regardless of belief, can now join any organization, even if they oppose that organization's purpose and mission.”

“Today's ruling renders student organizations effectively purposeless, and would allow, for example, Republicans and Democrats who wish to sabotage one another's college groups to join and undermine them from the inside out,” he asserted.

“More importantly, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that erodes religious freedom under the auspices of preventing discrimination against homosexuals,” Perkins charged. “The Court majority essentially held that it is acceptable to discriminate against private religious organizations that disagree with them on whether homosexuality is a constitutional right, and against religious groups that want to organize in universities according to the dictates of their faith.”

Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed in amicus curiae brief in favor of CLS, also warned about the dangers of the ruling. “Public Universities are now poised to become echo chambers where diversity is discouraged and conformity is mandated,” Rassbach said.

“By refusing student groups the right to choose their own requirements for leadership, the Court has struck a blow to religious groups’ ability contribute to a competitive marketplace of ideas.”

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