U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in case over law school’s refusal to officially recognize student religious organization whose membership requirements violate school’s non-discrimination policy
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, Docket No. 08-1371, a case that Courthouse News Service characterizes as pitting First Amendment rights against anti-discrimination principles. At issue is whether the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco can refuse to recognize a Christian student group that bars gays and non-believers from voting or holding office. The justices' questions revealed the court's ideological divide, with liberal justices appearing to back the nondiscrimination policy at Hastings, and conservative justices raising concerns about its scope and whether it was unfairly applied to the Christian Legal Society. Justice Scalia commented, "To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes ... that's crazy."
Hastings, a public law school, requires recognized student groups to let all members vote or hold office, regardless of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs -- the so-called "all-comers" policy. Hastings' attorney, Gregory Garre, said the nondiscrimination policy is constitutional because it applies equally to all student groups. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who appeared sympathetic to the law school's goal of promoting diversity, said it was "troubling" that Hastings allowed non-religious groups to limit their membership. A student group called La Raza, for example, restricts leadership to students of Latino or Mexican descent.
Michael McConnell, counsel for the Christian group, argued that the school's application of the policy was itself discriminatory, because Hastings appeared to single out religious groups. "If the student organizations are not allowed to have a coherent set of beliefs," he said, "there can be no diversity among them.” He called the policy "blatantly unconstitutional" and "manifestly overbroad." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated that she disapproved of second-guessing the school's policy, however "ill-advised" it may be. She pointed out that no group has been sabotaged or hijacked by opponents, as the Christian Legal Society feared, and that four law schools, including Columbia and Georgetown, have similar anti-discrimination policies. McConnell quickly noted that those law schools are private, not public.
Recognized student groups are eligible to receive funding and other benefits from the school, including the use of campus facilities and bulletin boards. The Supreme Court took up the case in part because other courts, including the 7th Circuit in Chicago, have ruled for different chapters of the same Christian group. The high court's ruling could extend to so-called charitable choice programs, in which religiously affiliated groups can receive federal funding for social services, while still requiring staffers to hold certain religious viewpoints.
Courthouse News Service, 4/19/10, By Annie Youderian
[Editor’s Note: Meanwhile the Washington Post quoted George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley as characterizing the case as having “the potential to resolve a long-standing conflict between two of the most cherished American traditions: equality and nondiscrimination on one hand and the free exercise of religion on the other." The Post article illustrated that friction by comparing a comment from Justice Sotomayor who said, “Are you suggesting that if a group wanted to exclude all black people, all women, all handicapped persons, whatever other form of discrimination a group wants to practice, that a school has to accept that group and recognize it, give it funds and otherwise lend it space?" with Justice Scalia’s comment, "It is so weird to require the campus Republican Club to admit Democrats, not just to membership, but to officership … "To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes, right? That's crazy." For the complete article see the first link below. For additional background on the case see the second link below. NSBA, along with National Association of Secondary School Principals, the California School Boards Association, and the School Social Work Association of America, filed an amicus brief in support of Hasting College of Law, which is available at the third link below. Lastly, see the fourth link below for the transcript of the oral argument.]
Source: Washington Post, 4/22/10, By David Waters
NSBA School Law pages on Christian Legal Society v. Martinez
NSBA amicus brief in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez
Christian Legal Society v. Martinez oral argument transcript