The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the rights of a California public law school to deny recognition to a national Christian student organization because that organization’s beliefs violate the school’s policy on nondiscrimination.
In the 5-4 opinion, the Court upheld the lower court rulings in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, saying the group’s (student chapter of the Christian Legal Society) First Amendment rights were not violated by the San Francisco based school’s decision. The Court concluded that public universities may override a religious student group’s right to determine its leadership only if it denies that right to all student groups.
The suit was filed in 2004 after the law school refused to recognize the CLS chapter because the group requires all of its officers and voting members to agree with its basic Christian beliefs. The chapter sought funding and formal recognition from the school.
“In requiring CLS — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings [College of the Law] did not transgress constitutional limitations,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion for the Court’s liberals and moderate Anthony Kennedy. “CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy.”
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a strong dissent that said the opinion 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 of express ‘the thought that we hate,’” Alito said. “Today’s decision rests on a very different principle: no freedom of expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country’s institutions of higher learning.”
“Our First Amendment reflects a ‘profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’ New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, 270 (1964). Even if the United States is the only Nation that shares this commitment to the same extent, I would not change our law to conform to the international norm. I fear that the Court’s decision marks a turn in that direction. Even those who find CLS’s views objectionable should be concerned about the way the group has been treated – by Hastings, the Court of Appeals, and now this Court. I can only hope that this decision will turn out to be an aberration.”
“Brushing aside inconvenient precedent, the Court arms public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups—groups to which, as Hastings candidly puts it, these institutions ‘do not wish to … lend their name[s].’ … I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today’s decision is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country,” wrote Justice Alito.
The dissent argued that the Court should focus on the school’s non-discrimination policy which was originally invoked to deny CLS recognition. According to the dissent, that policy amounts to discrimination since only religious groups are required to admit students who do not share their views, whereas political groups, like the Democratic Caucus, and other groups can put limits and requirements on membership.
In a statement, the American Center for Law and Justice said that they “are hopeful that this decision by the high court will be an’ aberration’ – as Justice Alito put it – and not a shift in First Amendment jurisprudence. Time will tell.”
Hastings is accused by some of using a double standard when it comes to setting its open-access policy on religion versus other groups.
“All college students, including religious students, should have the right to form groups around shared beliefs without being banished from campus,” said senior counsel Kim Colby with the CLS Center for Law & Religious Freedom in a statement.
Alliance Defense Fund’s Senior Legal Counsel, Gregory S. Baylor, said the Court’s decision “doesn’t settle the core constitutional issue of whether nondiscrimination policies in general can force religious student groups to allow non-believers to lead their groups.”
“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,” said Baylor. “We agree with Justice Alito in his dissent that the court should have rejected this as absurd.”
Hastings rejected CLS’s application for formal recognition on the ground that the group’s bylaws did not comply with Hastings’ open-access policy because they excluded students based on religion and sexual orientation – something outlined in CLS’s bylaws. Yet, while rejecting CLS, and perhaps to the dismay of Justice Ginsburg, the school has formally recognized many other groups whose bylaws provide that their officers and voting members must agree with their groups’ missions and viewpoints:
Silenced Right has a policy that says: “So long as individuals are committed to the goals set out by the leadership, they are welcome to participate and vote in Silenced Right elections.”
Hastings Democratic Caucus mandates that: “any full-time student at Hastings may become a member . . . so long as they do not exhibit consistent disregard and lack of respect for the objective of the organization.”
Outlaw’s constitution states that officers may be removed for: “working against the spirit of the organization’s goals and objectives.”
The Vietnamese American Law Society provides membership to any Hastings student: “so long as they do not exhibit a consistent disregard and lack of respect for the objective of the organization.”
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America says members must: “adhere to the objectives of the Student Chapter as well as the mission of ATLA.”
The Hastings Motorcycle Riders Club expects members to “own or ride a motorcycle or scooter, or ha[ve] an interest in such activities.
Students wishing to join CLS must sign a bylaw (Statement of Faith) that simply recognizes Christian principles – that “the Bible as the inspired word of God” and officers will “abstain from acts of the sinful nature.”
Twenty-two friend-of-the-court briefs were filed with the Supreme Court in support of the Christian Legal Society student chapter, including a brief filed by 14 state attorneys general. On April 19, lead counsel Michael W. McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution argued before the Court on behalf of the CLS chapter.