Supreme Court sharply divided on Christian student group case

The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the case of a Christian student group that required members to denounce homosexuality. The court appeared split.

At the US Supreme Court on Monday, justices heard arguments in a case about whether a Christian college-student group can exclude members who don't share its beliefs.

A sharply divided US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in a case examining whether a California law school can refuse to officially recognize a Christian student group that requires its members to embrace biblical passages denouncing homosexuality.

Officials at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco said the group’s stance violates the school’s antidiscrimination policy – including bans on discrimination based on religious belief or sexual orientation.

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

During the hour-long argument on Monday, a lawyer for the CLS said the school’s policy is itself discriminatory against students who wish to organize based on a shared system of beliefs.

“The policy is, I think, blatantly unconstitutional,” said Michael McConnell, a Stanford law professor, who is representing the CLS. “It is also a frontal assault on freedom of association.”

Hastings’ lawyer, former Solicitor General Gregory Garre, countered that the school’s policy requires every student organization to allow any student to become a voting member and potential leader. Even students who disagree with the fundamental goals and beliefs of a group must be allowed to join, vote, and potentially serve as a leader of the group, he said.

Would Democrats be allowed to lead the Republican Club?

It is a prospect that Justice Antonin Scalia found “weird.” He said that under the policy, the Republican Club would be required to admit Democrats not only as members but as potential leaders regardless of their political beliefs.

“To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes, right?” he asked. “That’s crazy."

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may wield the deciding vote in the case, suggested that the school’s policy is unnecessary. “Doesn’t this all just work out?” he asked.

Justice Kennedy said that Democrats wouldn’t want to attend Republican Club meetings and serve as officers. “What interest does the school have in this policing mechanism it is imposing?” he asked.

Mr. Garre responded that if the law school allowed religious groups to exclude some people, then the school would be in a position to have to draw lines permitting exclusions in some cases but not in others.

As a result, the school decided to enforce its written antidiscrimination policy as an “all-comers policy.”

“Hastings isn’t in the business of second-guessing the beliefs of individual groups,” Garre said. “The whole point of the policy, really, is to stay out of this.”

A difference between different types of discrimination?

There is a fundamental difference between barring discrimination based on one’s gender or race and barring discrimination based on one’s religious beliefs, said Chief Justice John Roberts.

“Gender and race is a status,” he said. “Religious belief, it has to be based on the fundamental notion that we are not open to everybody.”

“We have always regarded that as a good thing," the chief justice added. "That type of exclusion is supported in the Constitution. The other types of exclusion are not.”

Garre stood firm. “But not at all costs, Mr. Chief Justice,” he said. “Here we have a group that wants to exclude members on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“You phrase it that way," Roberts replied. "It’s a religious-oriented group that wants to exclude people who do not subscribe to their religious beliefs.”

Earlier in the session, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Mr. McConnell what was wrong with a school seeking to prevent groups from engaging in discrimination.

McConnell said the CLS challenge was not aimed at preventing the school from enforcing its antidiscrimination policy as it relates to an individual’s status such as race, nationality, age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. The challenge targets only that part of the policy that limits the ability of a student group to select its members based on shared beliefs.

“What if the belief is that African-Americans are inferior?” Justice John Paul Stevens asked.

McConnell replied that a student group dedicated to such a belief must be permitted to select or reject members based on the shared beliefs of prospective members. But what the group could not do, he said, is exclude prospective members based on status criteria such as their race or national origin.

Such a group with racist beliefs would be barred from excluding blacks, he said. “Our view is that the status half of [the Hastings policy] is perfectly constitutional and the belief half of it is not,” McConnell said.

A 'clash of beliefs'

McConnell told the justices that in his view the CLS did not discriminate against prospective student members based on their sexual orientation. Instead, he said, any exclusion would be based on a clash of beliefs.

“Think of how [the all-comers policy] would apply to the law school itself,” he said. “Does Hastings really mean to say it is committing itself to an all-comers policy when it hires faculty or admits students? Do they not care about the beliefs of its dean of admissions about, say, affirmative action? The very idea of it is preposterous.”

The case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. A decision is expected by late June.

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