Justices split over Christian club case

Group bars gay members, seeks school recognition

By Jesse J. Holland
Associated Press / April 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed to split sharply yesterday on whether a law school can deny recognition to a Christian student group that will not let gays join, a case that could determine whether nondiscrimination policies trump the rights of private organizations to determine who can — and cannot — belong.

In arguments tinged with questions of religious, racial, and sexual discrimination, the court heard from the Christian Legal Society, which wants recognition from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits.

Hastings, in San Francisco, turned them down, saying no recognized campus groups may exclude people because of religious belief or sexual orientation.

The Christian group requires that voting members sign a statement of faith. The group also 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,’’ lawyer Michael McConnell said. “What it objects to is being run by non-Christians.’’

A federal judge threw out the Christian group’s lawsuit contending that its First Amendment rights of association, free speech, and free exercise had been violated, a decision that was upheld by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in a two-sentence opinion in 2004.

The case 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. The court is expected to rule this summer.

“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,’’ said McConnell, a former judge on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

University lawyer Gregory Garre pointed out that it requires the same thing from all groups that want to operate on campus.

Justice Antonin Scalia questioned whether such a policy could lead to turmoil as students with opposing views join the same groups.

“It is so weird to require the campus Republican Club to admit Democrats, not just to membership, but to officership,’’ he said. “To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes, right? That’s crazy.’’

Other justices questioned where a ruling for the Christian group would lead.

“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?’’ Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked.

No, McConnell said. “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.’’

In another case heard yesterday, the justices appear likely to rule against public employees who accused a local government of violating their privacy by reading racy text messages they sent on their employers’ electronic equipment.

Several justices said the employer, the Ontario, Calif., police department, acted reasonably in monitoring the text messages in view of its written policy warning employees they have no guarantee of privacy in the use of office computer and equipment.