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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.

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As a result, the CLS was denied status as a recognized student group at the law school and stripped of the ability to receive activity funds, use school e-mail and bulletin boards, and meet in school facilities.

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Key distinction: School policy applies to all groups

In a concurrence, Justice Anthony Kennedy said a key distinction that separated the Christian Legal Society case from other cases finding a First Amendment violation was a stipulation earlier in the case conceding that the school had adopted an all-comers policy.

“Here, the policy applies equally to all groups and views,” he said. “And, given the stipulation of the parties, there is no basis for an allegation that the design or purpose of the rule was, by subterfuge, to discriminate based on viewpoint.”

If the policy had been a pretext to undercut the CLS, Justice Kennedy said, “the case likely should have a different outcome.”

Lawyers for the group had argued that the school’s enforcement of the nondiscrimination policy was aimed at forcing CLS to alter its own internal policies or risk losing student activity money and other benefits of official recognition. The CLS policy was based on the shared religious beliefs of the club members and upon their agreement to behave in a certain way.

In addition to embracing biblical denunciations of homosexuality, the group required its members to pledge to abstain from any sexual conduct outside of marriage.

The group said any students would be welcome to attend its meetings as visitors, but only those students who pledge to live in accord with the group’s shared moral beliefs would be accepted as voting members and as leaders.

Hastings officials said the Christian group’s bylaws violated a school policy that all official student groups must agree to accept any and all other students as full voting members and potential leaders.

Due diligence about Hastings' enforcement of its policy

Although the high court affirmed the ruling of Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, the justices remanded the case to the appeals court to consider whether Hastings officials had engaged in selective enforcement of its all-comers policy as a pretext to act against the Christian student group.

“We believe we will ultimately prevail in this case,” said Michael McConnell, who argued the case on behalf of CLS. “The record will show that Hastings law school applied its policy in a discriminatory way – excluding CLS from campus but not other groups who limit leadership and voting membership in a similar way.”

Other analysts praised the high court decision. “Religious discrimination is wrong, and a public school should be able to take steps to eradicate it,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“Simply stated, the Christian Legal Society sought to ignore rules that every other group complied with,” he said. “The organization sought preferential treatment simply because it is religious. I am pleased that the court said no to that.”