This morning the Supreme Court ruled that the University of California-Hastings law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that violates the school’s non-discrimination policy by barring non-Christian and LGBT students from membership. Five of the Court’s nine Justices upheld the lower court rulings that the Christian group’s First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college’s decision.
The case concerns a student chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), which sued the school after being denied official recognition and funding because the student group violated the school’s non-discrimination policy. That policy requires that student groups must be open to all students in order to receive funding and official recognition. The federal appellate court below ruled unanimously against CLS because the school’s policy prohibited every student group, whether religious or secular, from excluding students that disagree with the group’s mission. For example, if the school’s Democratic club cannot access school funding while excluding Republicans from its membership, a conservative Christian group cannot demand funds while excluding gay, non-Christian, or non-conservative Christian students. CLS appealed, claiming that it had a constitutional right – not enjoyed by any secular organizations – to receive state funding while discriminating against students on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.
In March the Center for Inquiry submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing that religious organizations do not have a constitutional right to special exemptions from generally applicable regulations, and that student groups in violation of the school’s policy therefore cannot demand public money and official recognition. CFI further argued that the school’s non-discrimination does not impose any substantial burden on the student organization’s free speech rights. CLS members are still permitted to use school facilities without official recognition and funding from the school. Moreover, if CLS had abided by the school’s non-discrimination policy, it would have received school funding and would not have been prevented from expressing its views about religion and homosexuality.
Justices Ginsburg, Stevens, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kennedy agreed with CFI that the Christian Legal Society has no special right to access funds while violating UC-Hastings’ non-discrimination policy. Four Justices — Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas — dissented.