In a case that pits nondiscrimination policies against freedom of religion, the Supreme Court is grappling with whether universities and colleges can deny official recognition to Christian student groups that refuse to let non-Christians and gays join.
The high court was to hear arguments Monday from the Christian Legal Society at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. The Christian group said its constitutional freedoms of speech, religion and association were violated when it was denied recognition as a student group by the San Francisco-based school.
The group has made this argument at several universities around the nation with mixed results. The high court's decision could set a national standard for universities and colleges to follow when Christian and other groups that want to exclude certain people apply for money and recognition from the school.
Hastings said it turned the Christian Legal Society down because all recognized campus groups, which are eligible for financing and other benefits, may not exclude people due to religious belief, sexual orientation and other reasons.
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.
The 30-member Hastings group sued in federal court after it was told in 2004 that it was being denied recognition because of its policy of exclusion. Federal courts in San Francisco, including the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected the group's assertions that the law school's policy violated its constitutional rights.
According to a society news release, it invites all students to its meetings.
"However, CLS voting members and officers must affirm its Statement of Faith," the release said. "CLS interprets the Statement of Faith to include the belief that Christians should not engage in sexual conduct outside of a marriage between a man and a woman."
The Christian Legal Society has chapters at universities nationwide and has sued other universities on the same grounds. It won at Southern Illinois University, when the university settled with the group in 2007 and recognized its membership and leadership policies.
But a federal judge in Montana said in May 2009 that the University of Montana law school did not discriminate against the Christian Legal Society when it refused to give the group Student Bar Association money because of its policies.
Lawyers for the student group say it's only fair that groups with different viewpoints are treated equitably by university officials.
"In an earlier era, public universities frequently attempted to bar gay rights groups from recognized student organization status on account of their supposed encouragement of what was then illegal behavior," Michael McConnell, a society lawyer, said in court papers. "The courts made short shrift of those policies." McConnell argues: "The shoe is now on the other foot in much of academia. The question here is whether such groups as CLS will receive comparable First Amendment protection."
The California university said it requires all registered student organizations to be nondiscriminatory if they want to operate on campus, regardless of viewpoint.
Groups that support gay rights "cannot exclude students who believe homosexuality is morally wrong any more than CLS is permitted to exclude students who believe it is not," university lawyer Gregory Garre said in court papers.
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