Justices rule vs. antigay group

On busy final day, high court also OK’s Vatican suit

The flag outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., was flying at half staff yesterday in honor of the late senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who died earlier in the day. The flag outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., was flying at half staff yesterday in honor of the late senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who died earlier in the day. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
By Jesse J. Holland
Associated Press / June 29, 2010

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WASHINGTON — A split Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a law school can legally deny recognition and funding to a Christian student group that will not let gays join, with one justice saying the First Amendment does not require a public university to validate or support the group’s “discriminatory practices.’’

The court turned away an appeal from the Christian Legal Society, which sued to get funding and recognition from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. The group requires that voting members sign a statement of religious faith, and regards “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle’’ as being inconsistent with that faith.

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But officials at Hastings, which is in San Francisco, said no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.

The court on a 5-to-4 judgment upheld lower court rulings saying the Christian group’s First Amendment rights were not violated by the college’s nondiscrimination policy.

The decision was revealed on the court’s busy final day before a three-month recess. Among a number of decisions, justices refused to halt a lawsuit that accuses the Vatican of conspiring with US church officials to transfer a priest from city to city despite repeated accusations that he sexually abused young people.

In the college campus case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, which included the court’s liberal wing and moderate Anthony Kennedy: “In requiring CLS — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations.

“CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy.’’

Writing in dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. stated the majority opinion was “a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.’’

“Our proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’’’ Alito said, quoting a past court ruling. “Today’s decision rests on a very different principle: no freedom for expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country’s institutions of higher learning.’’

Leo Martinez, Hastings College of the Law’s acting chancellor and dean, said the ruling “validates our policy, which is rooted in equity and fairness.’’

But the decision is a large setback for the Christian Legal Society, which has chapters at universities nationwide and has won similar lawsuits in other courts.

According to a society news release, the group invites all students to its meetings.

“However, CLS voting members and officers must affirm its Statement of Faith,’’ the statement said. “CLS interprets the Statement of Faith to include the belief that Christians should not engage in sexual conduct outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.’’

In his opinion, Kennedy said “the era of loyalty oaths is behind us.’’

“A school quite properly may conclude that allowing an oath or belief-affirming requirement, or an outside conduct requirement, could be divisive for student relations and inconsistent with the basic concept that a view’s validity should be tested through free and open discussion,’’ he said.

Justice John Paul Stevens’s remarks were even stronger, saying that while the Constitution “may protect CLS’s discriminatory practices off campus, it does not require a public university to validate or support them.’’

In the Vatican case, the plaintiff is attempting to force the Roman Catholic Church’s Holy See to bear legal responsibility for priests who molest children.

No one has ever successfully sued the Vatican over sex abuse by clergy, based on laws that hold a sovereign state — including the Vatican — is generally immune from lawsuits. The United States has had diplomatic relations with the Holy See since 1984.

The high court’s decision not to stop the lawsuit means the clergy sex abuse case will go to trial in federal court in Oregon.

“I have known for 25 years that all roads lead to Rome,’’ said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who represents the plaintiff.

John V. Doe v. Holy See was filed in 2002 by a Seattle-area man who said the Rev. Andrew Ronan had repeatedly molested him in the late 1960s at a parish in Portland, Ore.