There probably weren’t any Supreme Court justices marching in the pride marches of recent weeks. But they did give gay people a nod last Monday. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court upheld a University of California Hastings College of Law rule prohibiting registered student organizations from excluding anyone, in this case, lesbians and gays. The Christian Legals contended that their religion forbade them to associate with people who engaged in “unrepentant homosexual conduct,” and that the law school rule violated their religious freedom in demanding open membership.
The opinion, by Justice Ginsburg, is hardly a paean to gay rights – it carefully notes that the world of registered student organizations is a “limited access public forum,” not a full public forum like a town square. A limited public forum, which carries with it benefits, is treated somewhat more like the public funding cases. People may have rights, as the Christian Legal Society claimed, not to associate, which would protect them, for example, from a law forcing them to take gay members, but they do not have rights not to associate and to still claim money and recognition from the University of California. Certainly nothing in the opinion indicates that gays and lesbians are a specially protected class such that an organization funded by the state university excluding them particularly would violate the 14th Amendment. All this opinion does is turn back the claim that religious beliefs trump all other legal claims, including the university’s rules of inclusiveness.
The opinion is noteworthy not just for what it says about public colleges and their student organizations, but also for what it may suggest about Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the constitutional challenge to California’s Prop 8, rejecting gay marriage, as it ever so slowly wends its way to the Supreme arbiters. First, the 5-4 decisions in the Hastings case was that rarest of birds, a collection of the Court’s four liberals plus the gays’ best hope: Justice Anthony Kennedy. If the case against Prop 8 has any chance in the Supreme Court as likely configured, it rests in Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case striking down the sodomy laws as unconstitutional.
Second, Justice Kennedy’s separate opinion, concurring in the opinion of the Court, is a pretty stirring argument for the Prop 8 plaintiffs coming up from California. Justice Kennedy takes time to write separately, even though he explicitly says he only speaks to support the opinion of the Court, because he wants to say a word in defense of the special role of reason in a legal system:
“Law students come from many backgrounds and have but three years to meet each other and develop their skills. They do so by participating in a community that teaches them how to create arguments in a convincing, rational, and respectful manner.... As a condition to membership or participation in a group, students were required to avow particular personal beliefs or to disclose private, off-campus behavior ... were those sorts of requirements to become prevalent, it might undermine the principle that in a university community — and in a law school community specifically — speech is deemed persuasive based on its substance.... A school quite properly may conclude that allowing an oath or belief-affirming requirement, or an outside conduct requirement, could be ... inconsistent with the basic concept that a view’s validity should be tested through free and open discussion.”
By all reports, the strongest thing the plaintiffs in Perry have going for them, beside the obvious talents of their lawyers, David Boies and Ted Olson, is the power of rational argument. To be constitutional, legislation has to have some basis in reason. Since the defendants, cleverly or foolishly, chose to limit the presentation of evidence in Perry essentially to one dubious expert, they were forced, by closing argument, to contend, simply, that Prop 8 is constitutional, because the groundless fears of a majority of the referendum voters constitutes a rational basis for legislation. This position differs radically from the arguments that the Prop 8 proponents presented in the campaign for Prop 8, which included the damage to society by treating gay and lesbian people as normal and worthy. It even differs from the defendants’ original attempts, at trial, to present evidence that the option of same sex marriage actually harms heterosexual marriage. In essence, the Prop 8 defendants are arguing that they do not have to make a substantive, rational argument for their law.
By forcing them into a court of law, the plaintiffs challenged not so much the substance of Prop 8 as its metaphysics: What counts as reason? Inchoate fears may be the currency of political campaigns, sadly. But Justice Kennedy’s opinion reminds us that they are emphatically not the stuff of the American legal system, starting with the three years in which its practitioners learn their skills. If he means what he said, this rare bird may also be the first swallow.
Linda Hirshman is at work on a book on the gay revolution, "Victory! How a Despised and Marginalized Minority Came Out, Pushed Back, Faced Death, Found Love and Changed America for Everyone," to be published in 2011.