WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday upheld a California law school's refusal to recognize a Christian student group that effectively banned gay members.
In a closely watched case that pit First Amendment rights against anti-discrimination policies, the court concluded 5-4 that the University of California's Hastings College of the Law acted reasonably in refusing to recognize and subsidize the Christian Legal Society.
The court's majority reasoned that Hastings was simply applying a standard, nondiscriminatory requirement that all student organizations accept all would-be members. In doing so, the court rejected the Christian Legal Society's claim that the policy infringed on religious and freedom-of-association rights.
"CLS's conduct, not its Christian perspective, is, from Hastings' viewpoint, what stands between the group" and recognition, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
Ginsburg, whose husband, Martin, died Sunday, was in the courtroom Monday to read her majority opinion. Conservative dissenters called the decision "deeply disappointing" and possibly dangerous for those who espouse politically incorrect views.
"The court arms public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups; groups to which, as Hastings candidly puts it, these institutions do not wish to lend their names," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in dissent.
Based in San Francisco, Hastings formally recognizes about 60 student organizations, from the Hastings Association of Muslim Law Students to the Hastings Democratic Caucus.
The local chapter of the Christian Legal Society proposed an explicit criterion for membership. Students must sign a "statement of faith" to join. The statement recognizes "the Bible as the inspired word of God" and requires officers to "abstain from acts of the sinful nature."
"Unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle is inconsistent with an affirmation of the statement of faith," a Christian Legal Society resolution says, specifically condemning "all acts of sexual conduct outside of God's design for marriage between one man and one woman, including fornication, adultery and homosexual conduct."
Hastings officials deemed the Christian Legal Society's bylaws a violation of the school's prohibition against discrimination on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. Consequently, the school denied formal recognition to the organization.
Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy joined Ginsburg's conclusion that the school's policy was "viewpoint neutral," since it applied equally to every organization.
"It is, after all, hard to imagine a more viewpoint-neutral policy than requiring all groups to accept all comers," Ginsburg wrote, adding that the Christian group is free to exclude potential members so long as it forgoes state support.
Leo Martinez, the law school’s acting chancellor and dean, pronounced himself "very pleased" with the decision.
"The college's intent has always been to ensure the leadership, educational and social opportunities afforded by officially recognized student organizations are available to all students attending public institutions. The court's ruling validates our policy, which is rooted in equity and fairness."
Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said he was "extremely disappointed" in a decision that "significantly damages the constitutional rights of religious organizations." ON THE WEB