The case of the Christian club
Can the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco force a Christian student organization, as a condition of official recognition, to accept members who reject the group’s values? The Supreme Court, which will consider that question on Monday, should answer no.
At Hastings, “recognized” student groups are given access to college facilities and bulletin boards but aren’t sponsored by the college. Nor does Hastings endorse their points of view. Even so, a chapter of the Christian Legal Society was denied recognition on the grounds that it violated a policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.
Now Hastings argues that the society also ran afoul of a broader policy requiring groups to open leadership positions to students “regardless of their status or beliefs.” This so-called all-comers policy doesn’t fit the reality of student groups at Hastings, which include antiabortion and abortion rights groups, a gay rights group and associations of Jewish, Asian, black and Latino students. Some of these groups -- understandably -- have restrictive criteria for leadership positions.
The court would do better to confront the original issue in the case: whether the Christian Legal Society engaged in impermissible discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. It will find the evidence lacking.
As its name suggests, the society certainly favors one religion over others. But civil rights laws don’t prevent religious groups from discriminating on the basis of religion, nor does a fair reading of Hastings’ anti-discrimination policy. A Christian group that allows only believers to lead Bible study isn’t comparable to, say, a constitutional law club that excludes non-Christians.
More to the point of this case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that once a state university decides to subsidize student expression, it may not discriminate against religious groups.
As for the claim that the Christian Legal Society discriminates against gays and lesbians, the organization insists that homosexual students are welcome so long as they affirm -- and practice -- the traditional Christian view that sex must be confined to heterosexual marriage. Though it’s true that very few, if any, gay students would fall into that category, the fact remains that the society conditions membership on belief and conduct, not orientation.
Hastings could change the way it treats recognized student groups to emphasize even further that it doesn’t endorse their views. For example, all groups could be forbidden from using the college’s logo, as they now do, and could be denied reimbursement for travel and other expenses. Still, most law students already recognize not only that student groups speak for themselves but that the intellectual life of a law school campus is enhanced by a conversation between such groups. The Supreme Court shouldn’t stifle that conversation.