The Supreme Court will decide whether the Constitution allows a public university to use a “non-discrimination” rule to punish a religious student group that draws its leaders and voting members from among those who share its religious commitments. The Court announced today that it will review a lower court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case involving the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.
Christian Legal Society (CLS) is an association of Christian lawyers, law students, judges, and law professors. The foundation of CLS is faith in Jesus Christ. Like many religious organizations, it adopted a statement of faith setting forth its basic religious beliefs. In addition, CLS has expressed its adherence to the traditional Christian view of human sexuality, i.e., that sexual intimacy should occur only within the bond of a marriage between one man and one woman.
Hastings encourages the formation of student groups by offering them numerous benefits, including access to meeting space, communications mechanisms, and funding. A group of CLS law student members at Hastings formed a CLS chapter and sought recognition from law school officials. CLS indicated that all are welcome to attend CLS meetings but that the chapter’s leaders – as well as those who select them – must be CLS members. One must sign the statement of faith to be a CLS member.
Hastings concluded that CLS’s religious standards for leadership and voting membership constitute “discrimination” on the basis of religion and “sexual orientation.” In response, CLS pointed out that its leadership and membership policies are not “discrimination,” which is properly defined as the invidious reliance upon irrelevant personal characteristics. CLS also argued that its sexual morality standards do not constitute “sexual orientation,” given their emphasis on conduct rather than “orientation” and given that all extramarital sexual conduct is considered sinful, whether same-sex or opposite-sex.
Hastings rejected these arguments, and CLS asked the federal courts to vindicate its constitutional rights. Both the federal district court in San Francisco and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with Hastings. And now the Supreme Court will consider the case.
Much is at stake. CLS itself has numerous chapters at law schools across the country. Many of them have fought successfully for their religious freedom, often through litigation. Many other campus religious groups draw their leaders from among those who share their religious commitments. If the Court rules against CLS, public universities could force student groups to accept as leaders and voting members individuals who oppose the groups’ beliefs.
More broadly, the freedom of all religious groups – not just campus organizations – to associate around shared religious commitment is under attack. For example, the ACLU and its allies are working to exclude faith-based social service providers from federally funded programs on the ground that they “discriminate” on the basis of religion and “sexual orientation.”
It is no secret that theologically conservative Christianity is not particularly popular with the elites who control much of America’s higher educational system. The traditional view of human sexuality is seen as a particularly galling departure from the prevailing campus orthodoxy. University administrators, moreover, seem to have a lot a trouble complying with the First Amendment. Let us pray that the Supreme Court will vindicate the foundational principles underlying our first freedom.