Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether a Christian student group's right to religious liberty and the freedom of association can trump a university's ban on discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The case could set new rules for campus groups that receive funding through fees paid by the students.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal from a San Francisco chapter of the Christian Legal Society, which lost its recognition as a student group at the UC Hastings College of Law because it refused to abide by the school's anti-discrimination policy.
The law school said that officially recognized student groups must be open to all. The university has a policy forbidding discrimination based on "race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation" in all of its programs.
Five years ago, however, the new leaders of the CLS chapter at Hastings declared they would not agree to accept gay or lesbian students or others who do not adhere to traditional Christian beliefs. They cited the national policy of the Christian Legal Society, which says: "In view of the clear dictates of Scripture, unrepentant participation in and advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle is inconsistent with an affirmation of the Statement of Faith" set by the organization.
So the law school said the CLS chapter would lose its status as an official student group. That meant the school would not pay travel costs for the group's leaders to attend national meetings. The CLS group also lost its right to use reserved rooms for meetings, and the school's website to promote itself to other students.
The clash led to a lawsuit and, not surprisingly, the two sides differ over who is the victim of discrimination.
Kim Colby, a lawyer for the CLS Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said a Christian group should not be forced to "abandon its identity" in order to win campus recognition. "Public universities shouldn't single out Christian student groups for discrimination. All student groups have the right to associate with people of like-mind and interest," he said.
Ethan P. Schulman, a San Francisco lawyer who represents the law school, said the Christian students are entirely free to meet informally on campus. "The real question is whether a law school is obliged to subsidize a group with student fees that is committed to discriminating against some students. If their position is accepted by the court, it could force universities across the country to subsidize discriminatory organizations, including possibly hate groups or extremist groups."
In its suit, the CLS contended it was unconstitutional for a state-funded law school to deny official recognition to a religious group because of its "core religious viewpoints." By denying it official recognition, CLS said, the law school had violated its freedom of "expressive association" as well as its rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, all protected by the 1st Amendment.
A federal judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that claim, ruling a university can enforce "an open membership rule" for student organizations without violating the Constitution.
But lawyers for the Christian Legal Society appealed to the Supreme Court. As a legal precedent, they cited the high court's decision in 2000 that said the Boy Scouts of America may exclude an openly gay man from serving as a Scout master. In that case, a New Jersey court had prohibited such discrimination, but in a 5-4 ruling in Boy Scouts vs. Dale, the high court ruled the Scouts had a right to "expressive association" that permitted them to exclude those whose lifestyle contradicted the group's mission statement.
The Supreme Court dealt with a similar case involving Christian students at the University of Virginia in 1995. The school had refused to reimburse a student group for its campus publication because it explicitly promoted Christianity. The court said the exclusion violated the free-speech rights of the students.
The appeal in the Hastings case also noted that a U.S. appeals court in Chicago had sided with a Christian Legal Society chapter that challenged a similar nondiscrimination policy at the Southern Illinois University School of Law.
After considering the appeal for several weeks in their closed-door conference, the justices said Monday that they had voted to hear the case of Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez. Arguments will be in March and a ruling handed down by late June.