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 which 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 University of California-Hastings College of Law because it refused to abide by the school's anti-discrimination policy.
The law school says its 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 UC-Hastings declared they would not agree to accept students who are gays or lesbians or 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.
Citing this refusal, the law school said the CLS chapter would lose its status as an official student group. This 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 to use the school's Web site to promote itself to other students.
The clash led to a lawsuit.
Not surprisingly, the two sides differ on 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 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 First Amendment.
A federal judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals rejected this 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 which 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 v. Dale, the high court ruled the scouts had a right to "expressive association" which permitted them to exclude those whose lifestyle contradicted its mission statement.