Disavowing Discrimination: Supreme Court Says Public University Has a Right to Require Student Groups to Be Open to All

By Bathija, Sandhya | Church & State, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Disavowing Discrimination: Supreme Court Says Public University Has a Right to Require Student Groups to Be Open to All


Bathija, Sandhya, Church & State


The U.S Supreme Court ruled June 28 that a public university is not required to officially recognize and fund a Christian student group that engages in religious discrimination.

The 5-4 ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez is a "huge step forward for fundamental fairness and equal treatment," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

In 2004, the University of California's Hastings College of the Law denied official recognition to a Religious Right group called the Christian Legal Society. CLS is a national organization with student chapters at law schools across the country. The society requires all of its members to sign an evangelical statement of faith.

The San Francisco law school informed the CLS student chapter that it could not receive funding and recognition because of its discriminatory practices, but it could still form independent of Hastings and use the school's facilities for meetings and activities.

The CLS's litigation arm, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, sued Hastings in October 2004, demanding that its student chapter receive an exemption from Hastings' policy. As the case moved through the federal courts, it was taken over by the Alliance Defense Fund, a high-profile Religious Right legal group.

In court, the ADF claimed the policy violated CLS members' constitutional rights, particularly their freedoms of speech, association and religion. A district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed -and now the Supreme Court has, too.

Writing for the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected CLS's arguments, stating that Hastings' policy was constitutional since it is viewpoint neutral and did not single out any particular religious belief. In fact, the court agreed that CLS was asking for a special exemption.

"In requiring CLS - in common with all other student organizations -to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations," wrote Ginsburg. "CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy."

The court said Hastings' "all comers" policy was reasonable and ensured that leadership, educational and social opportunities were available to all students. …

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