Supreme Court takes case of student group that bars gay members
Christian student group cites freedom of religion in disallowing gay members. The college cites its nondiscrimination policy. The Supreme Court has agreed to decide which will prevail.
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CLS did not restrict students of different beliefs or perspectives from attending its meetings and events. The issue is over who can become a voting member and potential leader of the organization.Skip to next paragraph
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According to briefs in the case, CLS continued to meet on campus and conduct activities after its official status demotion. Between nine and 15 students regularly attended the meetings in 2004-05.
CLS filed suit in federal court, claiming Hastings officials violated its members' right to expressive association, free speech, free exercise of religion, and equal protection of the law.
The judge upheld the college's nondiscrimination policy as an acceptable regulation of CLS's conduct, rather than regulation of its speech. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld the college's nondiscrimination policy. It found that the restrictions were neutral and reasonable.
Two circuit courts at odds?
In appealing to the US Supreme Court, CLS lawyer Gregory Baylor argues that the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit's decision squarely conflicts with a 2006 decision of the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit case also involved a college-based chapter of the Christian Legal Society challenging a nondiscrimination policy.
In contrast, the Seventh Circuit ruled for the CLS, saying imposition of the nondiscrimination policy at Southern Illinois University School of Law undercut the group's ability to advocate its viewpoint.
That court concluded that "it would be difficult for CLS to sincerely and effectively convey a message of disapproval of certain types of conduct if, at the same time, it must accept members who engage in that conduct."
In ruling for CLS, the Chicago-based appeals court applied strict scrutiny, the toughest level of judicial inspection to the school's actions. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit applied a lower level of scrutiny to the Hastings policy.
Colleges' public funding and antibias rules
In a statement after the high court announcement, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the justices should use the case to establish the principle that public funding and official recognition on public college campuses must be open to all.
"Public schools have every right – indeed, an obligation – to refuse to advance religious discrimination," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United.
"This case is about fundamental fairness," he said. "If the student religious group wins, it will mean some students will be compelled to support clubs [through payment of required student activity fees] that won't even admit them as members. That's just not right," he said.
The case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. It will probably be argued next spring.
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