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U.S. Supreme Court sides with UC Hastings in Christian Legal Society case

By Marcus Torrey

July 11, 2010 10:22 p.m.

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a prior ruling supporting the University of California, Hastings College of Law in its refusal to subsidize a religious student group that declines admission to potential members based on their moral standing.

The original decision regarding the San Francisco-based college was made in March by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case involves the Christian Legal Society chapter at the college. The society sought to be officially recognized as a student group, which would entitle it to university funding, but since the group does not abide by the university’s all-comers policy, school officials denied the group official acknowledgment.

The society has existed at UC Hastings for many years, but in 2004 the group decided to adopt the membership-restrictive rules of the national Christian Legal Society, which excludes gays and lesbians from full membership. It was then that the society’s rules came into conflict with the school’s all-comers policy.

“The policy Hastings has destroys first amendment rights,” said Kim Colby, senior legal counsel for the Christian Legal Society. “We think the first amendment allows an organization to choose their own leaders.”

However, that is not the case at UC Hastings, she said. Colby said this all-comers policy is not restricted to religious groups, and cited a PBS interview in which the acting dean of UC Hastings said an African American group would have to accept white supremacists into their ranks to be officially recognized by the university.

Despite the UC system having its own nondiscriminatory policies, Colby said the policy UC Hastings has is unique to the school. She added that she believes it will stay that way due to its unfair nature.

The Supreme Court concluded compliance with the university’s policy is a fair requirement to receive official recognition. The court came to this conclusion based on the fact that the policy is viewpoint-neutral; the policy is applicable to all groups, not just religious ones.

Ethan Schulman, an attorney representing UC Hastings, said there are a number of reasons that the university holds such a policy.

“(The) primary reason is that the opportunities that the registered student groups offer should be available to any student interested in joining,” Schulman said. “Students should not be prevented from joining based on any reason.”

While representatives of the society attacked the constitutionality of the policy in court, Eugene Volokh, UCLA professor of law, said there is nothing unconstitutional about it since the group is free to restrict its membership in any way it wants.

“They have a constitutional right to do what they want to do, but to be officially recognized, to get the university’s support, they have to take all comers,” he said.

Similarly, UCLA law professor Russell Robinson said the court emphasized that the university is not banning groups for not following its policy.

“The state just won’t subsidize the group,” he added.

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