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Supreme Court to Review Rights of Student Religious Groups

The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to review whether a public college may deny recognition to a student religious group because the group requires its members to agree with its religious beliefs.

The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (No. 08-1371), involves a dispute between the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and the law school's chapter of the Springfield, Va.-based society of Christian lawyers and law students. But the case has implications for K-12 public schools, as well, as there have been cases out of such schools raising the same question of whether religious clubs may restrict their membership to core believers.

The Hastings dispute arose after the law school refused to recognize the Christian Legal Society chapter because the group refused to adhere to the school's non-discrimination policy. Specifically, the group refuses to refrain from discrimination on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, the law school says in court papers.

The CLS chapter says in court papers that it only has voting members, and such members must affirm the national organization's "statement of faith," which involves "a shared devotion to Jesus Christ." The statement says that "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle is inconsistent' with the group's beliefs.

The law school's denial of recognition to the CLS chapter meant it did not have access to meeting space, to communications channels such as announcements in law school newsletters and e-mail to students, and the opportunity to apply for funding from student activity fees.

The chapter sued the law school in federal court, alleging violations of its rights of free speech, expressive association, free exercise of religion, and equal protection of the law.

A federal district court upheld the law school's actions, and in March, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, unanimously affirmed the lower court in a short opinion that cited another recent 9th Circuit decision addressing the issue in the K-12 context.

In that case, Truth v. Kent School District, the 9th Circuit upheld a Washington state school district's decision to deny recognition to a student Christian club that limited officer positions and voting membership. The court said the school's application of its non-discrimination policy to the club did not violate the club's First Amendment free-speech rights. The court in that case also held that the school's actions did not violate the federal Equal Access Act, which requires secondary schools receiving federal funds to treat all non-curricular clubs on an equal basis. The act does not apply to higher education.

In June, the Supreme Court declined the Truth club's appeal of that ruling, which I blogged about here.

In the Christian Legal Society chapter's appeal of its case, the group argued that the 9th Circuit's rulings conflict with rulings by at least two other federal circuit courts on the rights of student religious groups to restrict their membership and still enjoy recognition by public schools and colleges.

For example, the group said the 9th Circuit ruling conflicted with a 1996 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, that a school district violated a high school Bible club's rights under the Equal Access Act when the district said the club could not be recognized as long as it barred non-believers from its leadership positions.

The law school filed a brief arguing that the case made a poor vehicle for deciding some of the issues surrounding student religious clubs in public education.

The Supreme Court spent several weeks deliberating the appeal, including taking the unusual step of requesting the lower-court records, before deciding to grant review. The case will likely be argued sometime in the spring, with a decision possible by late June.

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