(This essay has been updated to reflect an amended version of the referenced court case at the University of Florida.)
As is always the case in important Supreme Court decisions, the framework chosen determines the result, and Christian Legal Society v. Martinez falls squarely within that tradition. Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion cites Healy v. James (1972), Widmar v. Vincent (1981); and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va. (1995), cases that have restrained public colleges from discriminating against their student organizations due to the groups’ viewpoints. Reflecting their times, these three cases involved groups that perceived themselves as outliers: Healy involved the radical 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society, while Widmar and Rosenberger involved Christian student organizations, stealing a march on the earlier progressive student litigation.
The majority held that the exact issue was whether or not CLS could exclude members who did not conform to the group’s core beliefs: “In the view of petitioner Christian Legal Society (CLS), an accept-all-comers policy impairs its First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion by prompting it, on pain of relinquishing the advantages of recognition, to accept members who do not share the organization’s core beliefs about religion and sexual orientation. From the perspective of respondent Hastings College of the Law, CLS seeks special dispensation from an across the-board open-access requirement designed to further the reasonable educational purposes underpinning the school’s student-organization program. In accord with the District Court and the Court of Appeals, we reject CLS’s First Amendment challenge. Compliance with Hastings’ all-comers policy, we conclude, is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum. In requiring CLS -- in common with all other student organizations -- to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations. CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy. The First Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization’s expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be. But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity.”
Framing the issue this way, the majority held that the central question was: “May a public law school condition its official recognition of a student group -- and the attendant use of school funds and facilities -- on the organization’s agreement to open eligibility for membership and leadership to all students?” They answered “Yes.”
In the dissent, Justice Alito instead relies upon Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Court’s 2000 decision that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gays from its leadership ranks. He then parses the complex and incomplete record to find that Hastings engaged in discrimination when it denied full recognition to CLS due to the group’s bylaws, which require members and officers to sign a “Statement of Faith” and to conduct their lives in accord with prescribed principles; these include the belief that sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman. The national CLS interprets its bylaws to exclude from affiliation anyone who engages in “unrepentant homosexual conduct” or any students who hold religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith. Their “Statement of Faith” provides: “Trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior, I believe in: One God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; The Deity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; His vicarious death for our sins through which we receive eternal life; His bodily resurrection and personal return; The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration. The Bible as the inspired Word of God.”
Justice Alito suggests that student groups with political, ethnic, or other viewpoints would not be allowed to discriminate in their membership choices, but that religious student organization should be allowed to do so, citing Dale: “It bears emphasis that permitting religious groups to limit membership to those who share the groups’ beliefs would not have the effect of allowing other groups to discriminate on the basis of religion. It would not mean, for example, that fraternities or sororities could exclude students on that basis. As our cases have recognized, the right of expressive association permits a group to exclude an applicant for membership only if the admission of that person would ‘affec[t] in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.’ Groups that do not engage in expressive association have no such right. Similarly, groups that are dedicated to expressing a viewpoint on a secular topic (for example, a political or ideological viewpoint) would have no basis for limiting membership based on religion because the presence of members with diverse religious beliefs would have no effect on the group’s ability to express its views. But for religious groups, the situation is very different.”
It surely is a very different situation. And the Religious Right has systematically sought for many years, including their efforts in Widmar and Rosenberger, to seek full public funding and special pleading with regard to student organizations, no longer accepting that they should render unto Caesar. They have appropriated earlier iconic liberal decisions to advance their interests. While not all religious organizations advance the same interests or adhere to the same litigation tactics, it is clear that there is a deliberate strategy employing careful, incremental, deliberate choices of which cases to bring to the court, by way of geographic and other political choices.
CLS is one example, following on a 2005 Seventh Circuit case, CLS v. Walker, in which the organization prevailed on its free expression and free association rights claims. Another such case is Beta Upsilon Chi Upsilon [BYX] Chapter v. Machen, a student organization recognition case in federal court, before the Northern District of Florida and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. In this case, the University of Florida, which had over 750 Registered Student Organizations (RSO), including 60 religious groups, of which 48 were Christian, denied recognition to BYX, a national Christian fraternity, under Florida’s non-discriminatory regulations, which bar groups from bias on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations, or veteran status.
Because BYX had a membership requirement that could not qualify under the university’s guidelines, it was not deemed to be eligible for RSO status. The Court found: “BYX is a national fraternity founded in 1985. It has twenty-two chapters in nine states. According to its constitution, it ‘exists for the purpose of establishing brotherhood and unity among college men based on the common bond of Jesus Christ.’ BYX espouses a strict approach to the Christian faith, and membership in the fraternity is contingent upon what the fraternity deems ‘a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ.’ This requires agreement not only with the traditional core Christian beliefs and values contained in such ancient expressions as the Nicene Creed, but adherence to a demanding view of the faith. In its doctrinal statement, BYX explains that members must ‘believe that the Bible is God's written revelation to man, that it is inspired, authoritative, and without error in the original manuscripts.’ Accordingly, “BYX considers Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists non-Christians.” BYX also demands moral and ‘sexual purity.’ According to its code of conduct, BYX believes that “sex is a gift of God to be enjoyed inside the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. Therefore, we will not condone such activity as homosexuality, fornication, or adultery.”
The university, rather than risk protracted litigation, capitulated after the appeals court’s oral arguments had been heard, and modified its policy to allow a religious exception: “A student organization whose primary purpose is religious will not be denied registration as a Registered Student Organization on the ground that it limits membership or leadership positions to students who share the religious beliefs of the organization. The University has determined that this accommodation of religious belief does not violate its nondiscrimination policy.” By the new policy, agreed to in wake of the litigation, BYX was allowed all the benefits it had sought, and was treated as all the university’s RSOs.
But the fraternity was not mollified by its victory, contending that the University of Florida, a state institution, had done the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. The appeals court noted: “BYX is not satisfied with this result, however, and urges us to reach the merits of its constitutional claims. It ardently presses us to retain jurisdiction over this case because the University has failed to change the regulation from which the CSAI Handbook nondiscrimination policy derived: UF Regulation 6C1-1.006(1) (the “Regulation”). Furthermore, BYX is troubled by UF's timing. It contends that ‘the timing of [UF's] motion to dismiss [this appeal] indicates that it is motivated not by a genuine change of heart but rather by a desire to avoid liability.’ We are not concerned with UF's motivation for changing its registration policy, but only with whether a justiciable controversy exists. Finding that BYX has received the relief sought in its complaint, we reject its request that we reach its constitutional claims and dismiss this case, as we no longer possess jurisdiction.”
Thurgood Marshall may well have wished that the University of Texas in 1950 had behaved better and that the LDF had not been required to spend precious resources bringing Sweatt v. Painter to have its client admitted into the real University of Texas Law School, not the inferior makeshift version that the State had offered in the alternative. But once he won the case and Heman Sweatt was admitted, he did not go back to the courts to ensure that UT do so with a better attitude or “genuine change of heart.” This extraordinary line of reasoning, even when religious groups had prevailed on the merits of the case in federal court, shows the extent to which they are on a jihad and will settle for no less than winning hearts and minds, but only according to their own, narrow terms. The LDF would never have litigated that Homer Plessy was not fully Black and therefore on this basis was entitled to sit in New Orleans public transportation’s Whites-Only sections, nor would it have reasoned that Colin Powell was not African American for affirmative action purposes, because his people were from the Caribbean rather than from Africa. It surely will come as a shock to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or others who consider themselves to be Christian that a “Christian” fraternity has expelled them from Eden and deemed them ineligible for CLS or BYX membership. And it begs the troubling question of who is entitled to trademark Christianity or to dictate who is a Christian or “morally pure.”
On the remand of the case to the Ninth Circuit, the Court seeks to determine whether UC-Hastings had actually followed its own rules in enforcing the “all-comers” policy. In this remand, I hope that the lower court will review the complex and confusing record and find that Hastings acted consistently and in good faith. I also hope all the feckless colleges that capitulated earlier will go back and restore the full anti-discrimination provisions they silently set aside. I had bet a dinner that the Supreme Court would “DIG” the case, dismissing it as improvidently granted for consideration. I also bet a different dinner that the Court would decide for the law school on a 5-4 basis. This is one meal I expect to relish.
Michael A. Olivas is William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston, and the author of the forthcoming Suing Alma Mater: Higher Education and the Courts.