The U.S. Supreme Court appeared sharply divided last week over a case that turns on whether public colleges and schools may deny full recognition and benefits to student religious groups that require members to subscribe to their beliefs.
During oral arguments at the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed the lawyer for the Christian Legal Society chapter that is seeking full recognition at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco, about whether schools should be allowed to pick the best way to achieve their goal of prohibiting discrimination.
“Don’t we give deference to an educational institution in terms of the choices it makes about affecting its purposes?” Justice Sotomayor asked. “And the purpose here is, we don’t want our students to discriminate.”
But Justice Antonin Scalia offered a different point of view.
The central argument of the case is “to require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes, right?” Justice Scalia asked. “That’s crazy,” he added.
Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (Case No. 08-1371) has attracted wide interest from college groups, K-12 associations, and religious-rights advocates. The organization maintains that its First Amendment rights of free association, free speech, and free exercise had been violated. The club requires voting members to sign a statement of faith. A friend-of-the-court brief filed by the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and other school groups sides with the law school and calls on the court to uphold the application of nondiscrimination policies to student religious groups.
“Forcing public schools to exempt certain student groups from an all-comers nondiscrimination policy would risk the perception” that the school was endorsing the conduct or viewpoint of a religious group, the K-12 groups’ brief said.
The concern is not purely theoretical. While many of the conflicts have involved Christian Legal Society chapters in higher education settings, some lawsuits have raised the issue at the high school level.
The high court is expected to hand down its decision in the case by the end of its term in June.
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as High Court Hears Case on Christian Student Club