A divided Supreme Court today ruled, 5-4, that a public law school can deny recognition to a student group that excludes gays and lesbians. The Court said the school could enforce a policy requiring official student organizations to accept all students who want to join.

The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, arose in 2004 when a chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), a nationwide, non-denominational organization of Christian lawyers, judges and law students, asked to register as an official student group at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. Groups that are officially recognized by the school enjoy certain privileges, including access to school facilities and the opportunity to apply for school funding. But CLS membership requirements effectively bar non-Christians and non-celibate gays and lesbians from becoming voting members or assuming leadership positions, which conflicts with the law school’s stated policy of requiring registered student groups to accept any students as members. After Hastings refused to exempt CLS from the policy – known as the “all-comers” policy – the group sued the law school, claiming the policy violated the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religious expression. Two lower federal courts sided with Hastings, and CLS appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on April 19, 2010.

The case was widely viewed as a contest between the right of free association and non-discrimination policies. In its ruling, however, the court did not resolve any broad questions raised by this conflict. Instead, the majority handed down a narrowly tailored decision that upheld the specific policy of Hastings Law School – the “all-comers” policy – as long as it is applied in an evenhanded manner.

Writing for the high court’s majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that Hastings’ policy requiring officially registered student groups to allow anyone to join does not unconstitutionally discriminate against groups with particular viewpoints or missions. Quite the contrary, she wrote, the policy is completely neutral since it requires all organizations to open their membership and leadership to all students. Ginsburg argued that it is CLS that wants an exemption from the policy and thus threatens its neutrality. Moreover, she wrote, an “all-comers” policy is reasonable for an educational institution because it encourages all groups to accept and interact with students who hold diverse views.

Ginsburg also noted that even though the Christian Legal Society has been denied official recognition by the law school, the group can, and indeed still does, freely operate on campus and is even allowed to use school facilities to hold meetings. Furthermore, she disputed the argument put forth by CLS that the “all-comers” policy could lead to “hostile takeovers” of groups by students who oppose them. “This supposition strikes us as more hypothetical than real,” she wrote, adding: “Students tend to self-sort and presumably will not endeavor en masse to join – let alone seek leadership positions in – groups pursuing missions wholly at odds with their personal beliefs.”

Writing for the dissent, Justice Samuel Alito argued that by affirming Hastings’ policy, the majority sacrificed core First Amendment principles in favor of political correctness and armed “public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups.” In addition, Alito asserted, the majority overlooked certain evidence that shows that Hastings was singling out CLS because of its beliefs. Prior to the lawsuit, he said, many officially recognized groups on the Hastings campus – not just CLS – had membership requirements written into their bylaws that were discriminatory. Justice Alito also disputed the majority’s contention that CLS, even without official recognition, can still effectively operate on campus, noting that the administration has ignored requests by the group to secure rooms for meetings and tables at campus events.

The case now returns to the lower courts, which have been instructed to determine whether CLS should be given the opportunity to prove that Hastings has selectively enforced its “all-comers” policy. As for the broader impact of the court’s ruling, many colleges and universities may now decide to impose requirements on student groups that are similar to or the same as the “all-comers” policy at Hastings.

The Pew Forum has a number of resources on the Christian Legal Society case and religion and education in general. These include an “In Brief” report on the facts of the dispute and the arguments made by both sides in the case and a detailed “legal backgrounder” on the constitutional questions surrounding religion in schools. The full text of the decision is available on the Supreme Court’s website at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1371.pdf.

This analysis was written by David Masci, Senior Researcher, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Photo credit: Jim Pickerell/iStockPhoto