A poor Supreme Court ruling on Hastings

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The Supreme Court on Monday sided with the UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco against a Christian group that argued — persuasively, in our view — that it had been denied recognition because it refused to accept members who wouldn’t abide by its religious principles. Now that Hastings has won its case, it should take a fresh look at whether student organizations should be required to accept members who don’t share their views.

At Hastings, “registered student organizations,” though not endorsed by the law school, have access to its e-mail systems and bulletin boards and can use the school’s logo. The Christian Legal Society, which requires its members to agree to refrain from sex outside heterosexual marriage, was denied recognition on the grounds that it wouldn’t adhere to a school policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. Noting that other groups defined by their beliefs received official recognition, the Christian group complained that it was being singled out.

The Times thought the Christian group had a strong 1st Amendment argument. But on Monday the court ruled for Hastings, though it didn’t resolve the original issue of whether the society deserved an exemption from the anti-discrimination policy.


Instead, the court accepted Hastings’ argument that it actually operated on an “all comers” basis that required every student organization to admit any student who desired to join. That policy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, is constitutional, among other reasons, because it is “viewpoint-neutral.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a concurring opinion, suggested that he might have viewed the case differently if there were evidence that the school followed a policy designed to “stifle speech or make it ineffective.”

That essentially was what the society alleged. But its claim that it was treated in a discriminatory way was addressed seriously only by the dissenters, speaking through Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Even if it passes constitutional muster, the “all comers” policy could lead to bizarre results, such as a Jewish group having to admit Christians or a pro-life group being required to let abortion-rights activists seek leadership positions. The best argument against the policy is that it actually undermines diversity by making every student group potentially interchangeable in its membership. A better way to promote diversity of viewpoints is to allow groups on campus to define their beliefs — including religious beliefs — and compete for the allegiance of students. Hastings should give it a try.