Civil Rights

Supreme Court Watch Freedom of Religion at College

College campuses have been relatively quiet over the past few decades. There have been no widespread riots, protests or sit-ins. However, on one California college campus, a controversy developed over a student group, and it caught the attention of the US Supreme Court.

The Christian Legal Society at the University of California at Hastings has refused to accept students who "demonstrate participation in and advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle."

Court Considers Group's Right to Exclusion

In December 2009, the Supreme Court granted a Petition for Leave to Appeal filed by the Chapter. The Court grants these based on the significance of the legal issues in the case. In March 2010, it will hear oral arguments on the case, and a written ruling will likely be issued by July. Tens of thousands of petitions are filed each year, but the Supreme Court grants them very rarely.

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez raises issues similar to those raised in the Boy Scouts v. Dale case. The Boy Scouts refused to allow an openly gay man from serving as a Scoutmaster and the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts have a right to "expressive association" allowing them to exclude people whose lifestyle conflicts with the group's mission statement.

The Christian Legal Society's case arose because UC-Hastings stopped recognizing its local chapter. The University stated that the group's stance that it wouldn't accept homosexuals or others who don't follow traditional Christian beliefs into its group was contrary to the school's anti-discrimination policy.

On a practical level, that meant the chapter lost its right to reimburse members for leadership training, right to reserve campus meeting rooms and the ability to use the school's web site for promotion.

The Impact of Upcoming Decision Unknown

Supreme Court rulings are binding on all courts, in the state and federal court systems, so lawyers and judges around the country are interested in its decisions.

When deciding, the Supreme Court considers prior rulings on similar or related issues. It'll also consider the historical interpretation (what it means to interpret the Constitution) of the rights involved.

However, it isn't yet known how broadly or narrowly the Court will address the constitutional rights involved. This means colleges and groups can't yet predict how their activities will be limited or restricted.

The Constitutional Right to Freedom of Religion

The source of the constitutional right at issue is the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Generally, courts don't review constitutional issues unless the case can't be resolved on non-constitutional grounds. In the Christian Legal Society case, the First Amendment rights are so central to the issues that the Court will certainly address them in its ruling.

If you believe the government or its representative, such as a public school, has violated your constitutional rights, including your First Amendment rights, seek an attorney to find out if it's realistic to bring a lawsuit. Short, strict deadlines are present for any suits or complaints filed against government body.

Many factors to consider before filing include:

  • The scale of the violation
  • The damage, harm or injury sustained
  • Whether the offender was a "state actor" (representative of the US Government in all its forms)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I run a student group at a college. May I prevent certain classes of people from participation?
  • Are there any repercussions if I do prevent certain people from participating?
  • Can my college stop me from preventing certain classes of people from participation?
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