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Supreme Court: Law school not obliged to recognize Christian group

A California law school is under no constitutional obligation to grant the Christian Legal Society status as an official student group, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. The school had withheld such status because of the group's exclusion of gays as members.

By Staff writer / June 28, 2010


The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a San Francisco law school did not violate the First Amendment when it refused official recognition of a Christian student group that restricted its membership to those who shared a belief that homosexualty is immoral.

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In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said the University of California’s Hastings College of Law was under no constitutional obligation to recognize the Christian Legal Society as an official student group.

The majority justices said the law school had adopted a viewpoint-neutral policy requiring its student organizations to pledge not to discriminate against fellow students on the basis of religious belief or sexual orientation. In addition, the school reportedly adopted an “accept all comers” policy requiring student groups to permit any student to join their organization – even when that student disagreed with the purpose of the group.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said public universities may condition official recognition of a student group – and the related use of school funds and facilities – on that group’s agreement to admit all students.

“Compliance with Hastings’ all-comers policy, we conclude, is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum,” she wrote.

Justice Ginsburg added that, in the view of the majority justices, the Christian Legal Society (CLS) was not seeking parity with other student organizations, but a preferential exemption from the Hastings schoolwide policy.

“The First Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization’s expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be,” she said. “But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity.”

The majority justices said the student group was free to organize and meet on its own, off campus. But they said if the CLS wanted to enjoy the benefits of official school recognition it must comply with the viewpoint-neutral requirements established by the law school.

“It is … hard to imagine a more viewpoint-neutral policy than one requiring all student groups to accept all comers,” Ginsburg wrote, calling the policy “textbook viewpoint neutral.”

The dissent: School's policy may be a 'pretext'

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the majority justices had ignored “strong evidence” that the accept-all-comers policy was not viewpoint-neutral, but rather a “pretext” to justify viewpoint discrimination against Christian students.

He said the high court’s opinion would help some public universities enforce “prevailing standards of political correctness.”

“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,” Justice Alito wrote.

The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, involved a dispute over whether the law school acted properly in excluding CLS from official recognition.

Lawyers for the Christian students argued that the First Amendment right of expressive association protects the freedom of like-minded individuals to form groups and embrace certain shared values and beliefs, even when those beliefs are unpopular. They said while public universities may ban discrimination based on race or ethnicity, they could not interfere in a student group’s religious beliefs.

Officials at the law school had said the group’s stance violated the school’s antidiscrimination policy – including bans on discrimination based on religious belief or sexual orientation.