Supreme Court Split on Religious Freedom Case

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

Supreme Court Justices appeared sharply divided during arguments on Monday concerning whether or not a California law school can deny recognition to a Christian group because it refuses to allow homosexuals to become voting members of the group.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Christian Legal Society (CLS) is suing the University of California’s Hastings College of Law for refusing to recognize the group as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits. The school claims that it refuses to recognize any group that excludes people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.

The Christian group requires that all voting members sign a statement of faith and regards “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle” as being inconsistent with the statement of faith.

“CLS has all of its activities entirely open to everyone. What it objects to is being run by non-Christians,” said Michael McConnell, the lawyer representing the CLS, during Monday’s arguments.

“If Hastings is correct, a student who does not even believe in the Bible is entitled to demand to lead a Christian Bible study, and if CLS does not promise to allow this, the college will bar them.”

Some Supreme Court Justices seemed to agree. AP reporter Jesse J. Holland reports that Justice Antonin Scalia remarked: “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.”

Justice Samuel Alito also seemed skeptical. He asked attorney Gregory Garre, who represents the University, what a ruling in favor of the school might mean. “Say there is a small Muslim group; it has 10 students. If the group is required to accept anybody who applies for membership, and 50 students who hate Muslims show up and they want to take over that group, you say First Amendment allows that?” Alito said.
Garre said that has never happened to a group.
“CLS obviously thinks this is a real threat,” Alito said. “Now, what do you propose that they do?”
Garre said the members who are now outnumbered can leave the group.
“If hostile members take over, former members of CLS can form CLS 2?” Alito asked skeptically.

 However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondered about the ramifications of a ruling in favor of CLS.
“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?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
To this, McConnell replied: “The stipulation is that they may not exclude based on status or beliefs. We have only challenged the beliefs, not status. Race, any other status basis, Hastings is able to enforce.”
The CLS, which has almost 100 chapters on campuses nationwide, has brought the same case against other universities with mixed success. For instance, it won at Southern Illinois University in 2007 but lost a case last year against the University of Montana.

The present case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, was tossed out by a federal judge, a decision that was later upheld by the liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004.

The case is considered significant because it could clarify nationwide whether religious-based and other private organizations that want federal funding have the right to discriminate against people who do not hold their core beliefs.

A ruling is expected sometime this summer.

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