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Religious student group case heads to High Court
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
April 14, 2010
4 MIN READ TIME

Religious student group case heads to High Court

Religious student group case heads to High Court
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
April 14, 2010

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

anti-discrimination code?

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

policy.

“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

other group.”

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

discrimination.

“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

believes.”

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

are involved.

“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.