June 28, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

On June 28, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, No. 08-1371, holding that a public law school does not violate the First Amendment by requiring officially recognized student organizations to allow any student to participate in, become a member of, or seek leadership positions with the organization, regardless of his or her status or beliefs.

Hastings College of the Law, which is part of the public University of California system, officially recognizes student groups through its "Registered Student Organization" (RSO) program, which extends certain benefits to student organizations such as use of school funds and facilities. In exchange for that recognition, student groups must comply with certain conditions, including compliance with Hastings's Nondiscrimination Policy, under which the RSO must accept all comers and allow any student to participate, become a member, or seek leadership positions, regardless of the student's religion, sexual orientation, and other beliefs.

The Christian Legal Society (CLS) interprets its bylaws to exclude from the society anyone who engages in homosexual conduct or holds religious convictions different from those set forth in the group's Statement of Faith. The CLS at Hastings applied for RSO status, but Hastings denied the application because the group's exclusion of students based on religion and sexual orientation did not comply with Hastings's open-access policy.

CLS sued Hastings under Section 1983, arguing that Hastings's refusal to grant it RSO status violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion. CLS argued that Hastings had not denied any other group's application for RSO status, and that the written terms of the open-access policy targeted only those groups that organize around religious beliefs or that disapprove of particular sexual behavior, while leaving other associations free to limit membership to persons committed to the group's ideology. The parties had stipulated, however, that Hastings requires RSOs to allow any student to participate regardless of status or beliefs and provided an example that "the Hastings Democratic Caucus cannot bar students holding Republican political beliefs." The trial court ruled in favor of Hastings, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that Hastings's "all-comers" condition on RSO recognition was reasonable and viewpoint neutral.

The Supreme Court affirmed and remanded in a 5-4 decision. The Court held that the all-comers policy is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to RSO status at Hastings and therefore does not violate the First Amendment. The Court started its analysis by holding that the RSO program is a limited public forum, thus allowing the government to impose speech restrictions that are reasonable in light of the forum's purpose and viewpoint neutral. The Court rejected CLS's argument that the Court should apply the more rigorous standard applied to associational freedom in the context of public accommodations because the CLS is free to exclude any person for any reason as long as it foregoes RSO status. The Court noted that its inquiry was shaped by the educational context in which it arose, because it traditionally has recognized that schools enjoy "a significant measure of authority over the type of officially recognized activities in which their students participate." The Court then held that Hastings's all-comers policy is reasonable in light of the RSO forum's purpose to ensure that the leadership, educational, and social opportunities that RSOs provide are available to all students. RSOs receive financial assistance that comes from mandatory student-activity fees that are imposed on all students, so students should not be forced to fund a group that would reject him or her as a member. The all-comers policy helped Hastings adhere to its nondiscrimination policy without inquiring into an RSO's motivation for membership restrictions—an inquiry that otherwise might have imposed the "daunting task of trying to determine whether a student organization cloaked prohibited status exclusion in belief-based garb." Finally, the Court held that the all-comers policy is viewpoint neutral because it applies to all RSOs across the board, without regard to the RSO's message or perspective. It observed that CLS still enjoyed substantial access to school facilities to conduct meetings, and—like fraternities, sororities, and other private groups—could maintain a presence at Hastings without official school affiliation.

The Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit to consider CLS's argument that Hastings did not, in fact, apply its all-comers policy across the board but instead enforced it selectively.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.

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