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BOB ABERNETHY, host: The Supreme Court wrapped up its current term this week with a 5-4 ruling in a case closely watched by religious groups. It pitted a publicly funded law school’s policy of no racial, religious, or sexual discrimination against a Christian group’s claim that it should be able to discriminate regarding its members and their beliefs. As Tim O’Brien reports, the law school won. If a group there discriminates, it cannot receive public support.
TIM O’BRIEN, correspondent: The Court ruled that the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law could deny funding and access to school facilities to the local chapter of the Christian Legal Society, because the chapter denies voting rights to students who refuse to embrace the group’s religious beliefs, which include opposition to sex outside of marriage and same sex marriage. Lawyers representing the Christian Legal Society had asked the Court to rule that that violates the chapter’s freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
GREG BAYLOR (Attorney, Christian Legal Society): What we’re talking about here is the ability of a group to preserve its message, and it doesn’t make sense for a public university to say to a private student group you have to give up your Christian faith in order to get the same privileges that other groups have.
O’BRIEN: But dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court sided with the law school, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the law school’s nondiscrimination policy is “a reasonable condition.” The Christian Legal Society is not entitled to a “preferential exemption.”
Justice Samuel Alito led the four dissenters:
“Brushing aside inconvenient precedent the Court arms public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups. … I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today’s decision is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.”
The Court’s majority was heavily influenced by the law school’s claim that its nondiscrimination policy was not just aimed at discrimination based on sexual orientation, but that it was against all discrimination. The defendant in the case, Dean Leo Martinez, said under the school’s broad policy a Jewish student group would have to admit Muslims.
LEO MARTINEZ (Dean, Hastings College of the Law): The short answer is yes.
O’BRIEN: A black student organization would have to admit white supremacists?
MARTINEZ: It would.
O’BRIEN: Even if it means a black student organization is going to have to admit members of the Ku Klux Klan?
MARTINEZ: Yes. There’s a Spanish saying to the effect that the thinnest of tortillas has two sides, and the other side of that is that any other regime, we would be forced, using public money, to subsidize the discriminatory practices of a particular group.
O’BRIEN: Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the crucial fifth vote, said the outcome would have been different if the Christian Legal Society could show outsiders were trying to infiltrate the group to stifle its views, and all nine justices agreed the chapter will still have a case should the university apply different standards to the Christian Legal Society than it does to all other student organizations.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Tim O’Brien at the Supreme Court.
ABERNETHY: Religious groups had mixed reactions to the court’s decision. Some, especially those that support gay rights, praised it as a blow against discrimination. But others worried that the ruling could hinder a religious group’s ability to define itself by its beliefs. Several faith-based groups that receive public money said the decision should not be allowed to affect their right to hire only people who share their beliefs.