Supreme Court takes on case about college student group's membership code

The U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court


In a case which could greatly affect organized Christian activity on college campuses, the United States Supreme Court has decided to consider whether it was constitutional for a public university to bar a Christian student group on the grounds the group’s rules against sex outside of marriage were discriminatory towards homosexuals.

The Christian Legal Society (CLS) chapter at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law applied to the college for standing as a registered student organization, United Press International (UPI) reports.

The national CLS requires voting members to affirm a commitment to its Statement of Faith. The group also reaffirmed in March 2004 its understanding of eight biblical principles of sexual morality.

“In view of the clear dictates of Scripture, unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle is inconsistent with an affirmation of the Statement of Faith, and consequently may be regarded by CLS as disqualifying such an individual from CLS membership,” the 2004 statement read.

The Hastings College of Law chapter of the CLS put the reaffirmation into effect in the 2004-05 school year. While the school at first appeared to accept the application, it later decided the society’s restrictions on membership violated its non-discrimination policy.

In an exchange of letters, the CLS chapter told the college that anyone could attend its meetings but only adherents to its Statement of Faith could become voting members, the only type of membership available. The chapter said its exclusion applied only to practicing homosexuals, not those who remain chaste.

Hastings College, which is based in San Francisco, said that because it accepted public funds, it was bound by state and federal laws against discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The CLS chapter’s removal from the list of recognized organizations meant that the school would no longer officially pay travel costs for CLS chapter officers to attend national meetings, the group could not officially reserve rooms for meetings, and the group was excluded from some mailings to law students. However, the school continued to allow the group to reserve rooms.

Both the trial court and the appeals court ruled against the CLS chapter. The appeals court claimed the college’s conditions on recognition are “viewpoint neutral and reasonable.”

The Supreme Court on Monday, December 7 agreed to hear the case, known as Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.

According to UPI, the CLS group’s brief relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s year 2000 decision Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, which by a 5-4 ruling held that the Boy Scouts’ right to free association, including denial of membership to homosexuals, trumped New Jersey’s public accommodations law which barred discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The CLS affiliate’s brief to the Supreme Court said the issue in the case is whether a religious student group may draw its officers and voting members from “among those who share its core religious commitments.”

It argued the Court has “consistently protected” a viewpoint group's First Amendment right to deny leadership and membership to persons “who could adversely affect the association's ability to express its message.” It has also consistently required public universities to recognize “disfavored student organizations, including religious groups, under the First Amendment's protection of both the rights of expressive association and free speech.”

Hastings College’s brief said that the group does not prove that complying with the anti-discrimination policy would “significantly affect its ability to advocate public or private viewpoints,” UPI states.

It also argued that the group was able to meet during the academic year without “any significant impediment to its activities or its ability to communicate.”

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