Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could have serious implications for the laws we have created to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in society.
The central question raised in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez is whether a public university, the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, can be forced to officially recognize and provide funds to clubs that violate the school's nondiscrimination policy. Although Hastings allows the Christian Legal Society (CLS) to meet and recruit on campus, the group is claiming that it should be entitled to official club status and its share of the small amount of money set aside for school clubs even though it denies membership to anyone — even fellow Christians — who doesn't follow the club's view of Christianity, which includes the belief that gay conduct is sinful.
In our view, Hastings has done a thoughtful job of balancing all interests. Hastings does not restrict official clubs in their beliefs or speech. Other official clubs at the university range from the Clara Foltz Feminist Association and the Hastings Federalist Society to the Hastings Democrats and the Hastings Animal Law Society. Hastings has one simple rule: If a club wants to use the university's name and receive university funds, anyone must be allowed to join. That means men are able to join in the feminist club, Republicans may join the Democratic club, and so on.
Defenders of CLS claim that denying the club official status somehow impinges on its constitutional freedoms. But CLS and other unofficial clubs are allowed to meet and recruit on campus, and to use campus bulletin boards and chalk boards to make announcements. CLS is free to hold whatever beliefs it likes, and to exclude anyone from membership on the basis of any characteristic or belief. But if it chooses to exclude students based on their religion or sexual orientation, it cannot then also demand public funding and official recognition. Publically funded universities have a financial, historical, and legal imperative to ensure that tuition-paying students are not discriminated against in the pursuit of any educational opportunity.
If the court were to accept CLS's claim that religious beliefs trump the need to abide by nondiscrimination rules, all nondiscrimination laws — the laws we have put in place to guarantee everyone an equal opportunity to earn a living, find housing and to obtain access to critical services including healthcare — would be in jeopardy.
That's a pretty scary proposition. In this case, it is lesbian and gay students and students with different religious beliefs who are targeted. But we've been down this road many times before. Religious beliefs have been offered as an excuse to justify discrimination based on race, gender, disability and national origin. In fact, just over 20 years ago, a religious school claimed that it was justified in refusing women the health benefits it provided male employees because of its religious view that men are the heads of the household. And just 40 years ago, a restaurant owner in South Carolina argued that his religious beliefs about segregation exempted him from having to serve African-American customers, regardless of what the civil rights laws said. Fortunately, those claims did not prevail.
Our Founding Fathers very wisely understood that society benefits when everyone is free to form their own beliefs. But to ensure that freedom, they also realized that religion and government must remain separate. Allowing one particular religious viewpoint to dictate the rules automatically leads to less freedom for other forms of belief. Hastings has created rules that establish a level playing ground for all. In respect for the diversity of its student body, it should not be forced to endorse or fund actual discrimination.