Ill. law school to recognize Christian student group

By The Associated Press
05.23.07

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University has settled a two-year-old lawsuit brought by a Christian group whose student organization status had been revoked because members must pledge to adhere to Christian beliefs.

As part of the deal with the Christian Legal Society, the Carbondale school said it officially will recognize the group and its long-standing membership and leadership policies.

“Every student group has the right to ensure that its leaders and members support its mission; religious student groups should be treated no differently,” said Casey Mattox, litigation counsel for the society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom. “This settlement ensures CLS at SIU will enjoy all of the rights and benefits enjoyed by other law school organizations.”

Southern Illinois also will establish a $10,000 scholarship fund that the society will administer.

Christian Legal Society sued SIU in April 2005 after the university revoked the group’s registered status, meaning it no longer could use the university’s facilities or name and wasn’t eligible for school funding. The group claimed SIU’s decision violated its First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

SIU said the society’s requirement that members adhere to basic Christian beliefs violates the school’s affirmative-action policy as well as a Board of Trustees policy stating that student organizations must follow all “federal or state laws concerning nondiscrimination and equal opportunity.”

Messages left yesterday with Jerry Blakemore, SIU’s general counsel, were not immediately returned.

Yesterday’s announcement of the resolution came 10 months after a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that SIU’s law school should reinstate the Christian group to student organization status.

That ruling reversed a district court judge’s July 2005 decision that denied Christian Legal Society a preliminary injunction that would have re-established the group’s status while its lawsuit against the university proceeded.

The appeals court found that “SIU failed to identify which federal or state law it believes [Christian Legal Society] violated.” The court also noted that the group’s membership policies were “based on belief and behavior rather than status, and no language in SIU’s (affirmative-action) policy prohibits this.”

Mattox has said SIU began looking into the chapter’s requirements after a student who never attended a Christian Legal Society meeting read about its policies in a law journal and brought them to administrators’ attention. No student ever was denied a membership or leadership position within the group because of his or her religious beliefs, he said.

Mattox credited the settlement to the 7th Circuit’s “landmark ruling for the rights of religious student organizations on college campuses.”

Christian Legal Society, based in Springfield, Va., is a nationwide association of more than 3,400 Christian lawyers, law students, law professors and judges with chapters in more than 1,100 cities across the country, according to its Web site. The SIU chapter had fewer than 12 members, Mattox has said.

The group has won similar lawsuits against other schools, but lost a suit in April of last year against the University of California Hastings College of Law, which denied it recognition in 2004.