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.
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.
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.
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.”