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Do university rules discriminate against student faith groups?

In a case to be argued before the US Supreme Court Monday, the Christian Legal Society seeks official recognition by the University of California Hasting College of the Law in San Francisco.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2010

Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The Christian Legal Society, a student group, says the school's policy regarding officially-recognized campus organizations violates their First Amendment right to freely associate with like-minded individuals who share a common faith.

Hastings College of the Law

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A group of Christian students is asking the US Supreme Court to strike down as unconstitutional a school anti-discrimination policy that forces them to accept as voting members and potential leaders classmates who do not share their core religious beliefs.

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A lawyer for the Christian Legal Society is set to argue on Monday that the school’s policy violates the Christian students’ First Amendment right to freely associate with like-minded individuals who share a common faith.

At issue is a non-discrimination policy that applies to all student groups at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The policy bars student groups from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex, or sexual orientation.

Hastings officials refused to recognize the Christian Legal Society (CLS) as a registered student organization because they said the group’s faith-based by-laws reflected intent to discriminate against gay and lesbian students and others who do not embrace the group’s religious beliefs. Under the school policy, student groups must agree to accept any student as a voting member.

Does the Christian group discriminate against gay students?

The CLS said that gay and lesbian students and others of different beliefs were welcome to attend CLS meetings and events, but that unless they signed a pledge acknowledging that they shared the precise Christian beliefs of the group they would be excluded from voting, holding leadership positions, and leading Bible study discussions.

Among other obligations, CLS members must pledge that they will not engage in a “sexually immoral lifestyle,” including “all acts of sexual conduct outside God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman.” Failure to live by this standard disqualifies an individual from becoming a voting CLS member.

School officials view the pledge as discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation.

CLS members view it as a pillar of their faith.

“To forbid groups to form on the basis of shared beliefs is to forbid freedom of association at its most fundamental level,” writes Stanford Law Professor Michael McConnell in his brief on behalf of the CLS.

'Policy targets religious groups'

“The policy targets solely those groups whose beliefs are based on ‘religion’ or that disapprove of a particular kind of sexual behavior,” Mr. McConnell says. “Groups committed to other viewpoints are free to select their leaders from among members who support their purposes and core beliefs.”

McConnell says the non-discrimination policy is “explicitly viewpoint discriminatory.” It only applies to religious beliefs, leaving all other groups with political, social, or cultural ideals or beliefs free to select like-minded members and leaders.

Hastings officials reject charges that their non-discrimination policy is itself discriminatory. They say the policy requires all student groups to be open to all students – period.

Under this policy, school officials say, a Republican would have a right to become a voting member of the Democratic Club; the Clara Foltz Feminist Association must accept male chauvinists as voting members and potential leaders; and the antiabortion student group could not exclude students who support abortion rights.

Lawyers for the college say the school’s non-discrimination policy does not violate the free speech or association rights of religious students.

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