WASHINGTON — Can a public
law school exclude a Christian student group from recognition because the group’s
rules forbid gays and non-Christians as members in violation of the school’s
The U.S. Supreme Court will
weigh constitutional questions around universities and religious rights when it
hears arguments April 19 in a case centered on the University of California’s
law school in San Francisco.
The case, Christian Legal
Society (CLS) v. Martinez, pits a campus chapter of a Christian legal group
against the Hastings College of the Law and its 20-year-old nondiscrimination
“Our main argument is that
Christian student groups shouldn’t be forced to deny their faith in order to
receive equal treatment on campus,” said Gregory Baylor, senior legal counsel
for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is helping represent the CLS chapter
before the high court.
“At stake in this case is
the right of every student group to organize around shared commitments.”
The law school lists more
than 60 registered student organizations on its web site, including groups for
Catholic and Jewish students as well as golf and ballroom dance clubs. As
official student groups, they have access to meeting space, e-mail
communication with the student body and limited funding for some activities.
Ethan Schulman, the San
Francisco attorney who successfully argued on Hastings’ behalf in two lower
courts, said the CLS chapter is the only group that has sought an exemption
from the anti-discrimination policy.
“What CLS is seeking here is
not equal treatment,” said Schulman. “What they’re seeking is special
treatment. They’re seeking to be exempt from a policy that applies to every
Though the case at first
glance centers around student rights and the First Amendment, some national
organizations are taking a broader view. Their friend-of-the-court briefs
suggest the court’s ruling could influence public discussion of gay rights and
rules about religious hiring.
The CLS considers “unrepentant
participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle” to be
inconsistent with its statement of faith. Two gay groups — the Lambda Legal
Defense and Education Fund, and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders —
argued in a joint brief that CLS’s membership policy is blatant anti-gay
“It would be like saying if
a white supremacist group said we’ll admit blacks as long as they admit they’re
inferior, or if a male group said we’ll admit women as long as they admit they’re
inferior and their place is in the home,” said Cliff Sloan, a Washington lawyer
who filed the brief for the gay organizations.
Baylor, the former director
of CLS’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said the CLS rules for official
members and campus leaders refer to premarital and extramarital sexual
activity, not just homosexual conduct.
“CLS has a rule that says
its representatives should abide by Christian standards of sexual morality, and
that means a representative of CLS should not be engaged in activity that most
Christians have considered to be immoral for two millennia,” he said. “The
bottom line is that Hastings refused to recognize CLS because of what it
The U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops also weighed in, urging the court to consider the consequences
of too broad a ruling in the case.
“If this court treats (or
allows Hastings to continue to treat) CLS’s moral and religious opposition to
extramarital sexual conduct as `discrimination,’ CLS and very many others of
like mind will be stigmatized as bigots and correspondingly marginalized and
punished by government,” the bishops warned.
While supporters argued for CLS’s
right to associate with participants based on its beliefs, the Anti-Defamation
League and several other groups said the rules are different when public funds
“Under this novel standard,
as relates to religious groups, the federal government and the states will
effectively be stripped of their long-recognized powers and discretion to
condition the grant of taxpayer funds on compliance with neutral
nondiscrimination policies,” the ADL and others said.