WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices today seemed to split sharply on whether a law school can deny recognition to a Christian student group because it will not let gays join, a case that could determine whether college nondiscrimination policies trump the rights of private organizations to determine who can — and cannot — belong to their ranks.
In arguments tinged with questions of religious, racial and sexual discrimination, the Court heard from the Christian Legal Society, which wants recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits.
Hastings, located in San Francisco, turned the Christian Legal Society down, saying no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.
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.
"CLS has all of its activities entirely open to everyone," lawyer Michael McConnell said. "What it objects to is being run by non-Christians."
A federal judge threw out the Christian group's lawsuit claiming its First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise had been violated, a decision that was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a two-sentence opinion in 2004.
The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, could help clarify whether religious-based and other private organizations that want federal funding have the right to discriminate against people who do not hold their core beliefs. The high court is expected to rule later this year.
"If Hastings is correct, a student who does not even believe in the Bible is entitled to demand to lead a Christian Bible study, and if CLS does not promise to allow this, the college will bar them," McConnell said.
University lawyer Gregory Garre said the school requires the same thing from all groups that want to operate on campus.
"It is so weird to require the campus Republican Club to admit Democrats, not just to membership, but to officership," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes, right? That's crazy."
Other justices questioned where a ruling for the Christian group would lead.
"Are you suggesting that if a group wanted to exclude all black people, all women, all handicapped persons, whatever other form of discrimination a group wants to practice, that a school has to accept that group and recognize it, give it funds and otherwise lend it space?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
No, McConnell said: "The stipulation is that they may not exclude based on status or beliefs. We have only challenged the beliefs, not status. Race, any other status basis, Hastings is able to enforce."
"What if the belief is that African Americans are inferior?" Justice John Paul Stevens asked.
"Again, I think they can discriminate on the basis of belief, but not on the basis of status," McConnell said.
Garre noted that the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that Bob Jones University in South Carolina could not ban students who believed in interracial dating and still receive federal funds. "Here we have a group that wants to exclude members on the basis of sexual orientation," he said.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that was only Garre's interpretation. "It's a religious-oriented group that wants to exclude people who do not subscribe to their religious beliefs," he said.
Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether Hastings had allowed other groups to exist on campus that did not allow all comers to join. But Garre said the Christian Legal Society had stipulated in the lower courts that Hastings did have an all-comers policy, and that registered student organizations must accept all law students as voting members regardless of status or belief.
If they didn't believe it was true, "they shouldn't have stipulated" to that fact, Garre said.
Alito asked Garre what the practical effects of Hastings' policy was for groups. Say "there is a small Muslim group; it has 10 students. If the group is required to accept anybody who applies for membership, and 50 students who hate Muslims show up and they want to take over that group, you say the First Amendment allows that?" Alito said.
Garre said that had never happened to a group.
"CLS obviously thinks this is a real threat," Alito said. "Now, what do you propose that they do?"
Garre said the members who were now outnumbered could leave the group.
"If hostile members take over, former members of CLS can form CLS 2?" Alito asked skeptically.
The Christian group could require knowledge of the Bible to join, Garre said. "There is a fundamental difference between excluding people on the basis of merit and excluding people on the basis of status or belief that has no connection to merit," he said.
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.
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.