Agnes Scott College and Georgia Perimeter College both have Christian student organizations, as do most colleges throughout the state and nation. As one would expect, many of these student groups require their members to adhere to certain religious principles. But what if one of those principles violates the school’s anti-discrimination policy? Does the school have a right to withdraw recognition of the organization?
After two federal appeals courts disagreed on the matter, on Dec. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments that would answer that question. The case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, and it pits a law school’s policy of not discriminating against homosexual students against a student organization’s religious freedom.
The group, the Christian Legal Society (CLS), permits all students to participate in its activities. However, it prohibits students from voting or taking leadership positions in the organization who disagree with its stance against living a “sexually immoral lifestyle,” which includes all sex outside of marriage between a man and woman.
That membership requirement defies Hastings College’s anti-discrimination policy. Consequently, school officials withdrew recognition of CLS, which means that CLS cannot use school facilities for meetings and events, post notices on bulletin boards and receive other benefits Hastings extends to the more than 60 other campus organizations.
“Christian students have the right to gather as Christians for a common purpose and around shared beliefs,” said Gregory S. Baylor, Alliance Defense Fund’s senior legal counsel, in a statement. ADF is an alliance of Christian attorneys. Baylor continued, “It’s completely unreasonable—and unconstitutional—for a public university to disrupt the purposes of private student groups by forcing them to accept as members and officers those who oppose the very ideas they advocate.”
This case has drawn other national organizations into the fray. “This case is about fundamental fairness,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “If the student religious group wins, it will mean some students will be compelled to support [financially through student activity fees] clubs that won’t even admit them as members. That’s just not right.”
Before arriving at the Supreme Court, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the college. They found that the school’s anti-discrimination policy is not unconstitutional because it’s applicable to all student groups on campus. “The conditions on recognition are therefore viewpoint neutral and reasonable,” the justices concluded.
But CLS argues that the ruling conflicts with a precedent set by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2006 decision (Christian Legal Society v. Walker) involving the student organization’s chapter at an Illinois law school.
Looking at similar facts, the seventh circuit delivered a split decision. Two of the justices pointed out that CLS could not “sincerely and effectively convey a message of disapproval of certain types of conduct if, at the same time, it must accept members who engage in that conduct.”
This is not the first time that the high court has decided a case involving a group’s right to discriminate. In its petition to the court, CLS cited landmark rulings: Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) and Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group Boston (1995). In both cases, the Supreme Court upheld groups’ association rights that violated government anti-discrimination policies.
But Hastings counters that the precedents don’t address the issue in this case of whether a university “may condition access to a limited public forum or to government financial subsidies on compliance with a viewpoint neutral nondiscrimination policy.” What’s more, Hastings points out, CLS is free to meet and organize without official recognition.