The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a case pitting a public law school's non-discrimination policy against a Christian student group's faith-based requisite.
The high court justices had agreed in December to intervene in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which was first filed in 2004 after Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco denied official recognition to the local chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) over its refusal to abide by the school's non-discrimination policy.
Since the federal civil rights suit was filed against school officials, attorneys with CLS and the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom have argued on behalf of the CLS chapter, insisting that the group should be able to decide its own membership and not be required by the college to admit homosexuals and non-Christians as members and officers in order to receive school recognition.
"Forcing CLS to have an atheist lead its Bible studies is as absurd as the College Democrats being forced to elect Republican officers - which under the current Hastings policy is indeed required," argues ADF Senior Legal Counsel Gregory S. Baylor.
"All students, including Christians, have the right to form groups around shared beliefs without being excluded from campus life," adds Kim Colby, senior counsel at the CLS Center for Law & Religious Freedom.
"The Constitution trumps a campus policy. The Constitution protects the freedom of private student groups to select their messages and their leaders," she says.
In April 2006, however, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of the defendants, which include school officials and Hastings Outlaw, a recognized student organization.
A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that heard oral arguments in the case in March 2009 later affirmed the district court's opinion, ruling against CLS in an unpublished disposition on March 17, 2009.
Two months after the Ninth Circuit made its ruling, CLS filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court seeking a reversal of the decision – a petition backed by nearly 100 different organizations and 14 state attorney generals through 22 amicus briefs.
In its "friend-of-the-court" brief to the Supreme Court, one of the groups, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), contended that religious groups are constitutionally protected in following their religious beliefs.
"Religious groups by their nature embrace religious principles and, as a matter of organizational identity and coherence, will normally require adherence to such principles as a criterion for membership and certainly for leadership," the legal group stated in the brief.
"Wooden application of religious 'non-discrimination' policies therefore forces religious groups to choose between their religious identity and access to the forum. That 'choice' is an unconstitutional one between yielding to government intermeddling and no access at all," ACLJ added. "Far from a permissible condition on benefits, this is a choice that the government, under the Religion Clauses, has no business imposing on religious groups."
The Christian Legal Society, which has chapters at universities nationwide, has sued other universities on the same grounds.
It won a similar suit against Southern Illinois University, which settled with the group in 2007 and recognized its membership and leadership policies.
Arguments for the Hastings case are expected to begin at 10 a.m. ET on Monday.