Supreme Court Splits in Argument over Religious Group’s Violation of Non-Discrimination Policy

April 19, 2010

public domain - from Wikipedia Commons

The New York Times reports that the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to split sharply in today's oral argument in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez , a case in which CFI submitted an amicus brief last month .  

The case concerns a student chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.  CLS sued the school after being denied official recognition and funding because the student group excluded non-Christian, gay and lesbian students, in violation of 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. 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.

CFI's amicus brief argued 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.

According to the New York Times, the Justices split along largely predictable lines during this morning's oral argument.  "Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito questioned the school's lawyer sharply, saying that being forced to admit someone who doesn't share their beliefs was a threat to the group. But Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor pressed the group's lawyer on notion that if they can ban gays, other groups can legally ban women and minorities."  As with many controversial cases, the controlling vote in CLS v. Martinez likely rests with Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Roberts court's swing vote.