On June 28th, the U.S. Supreme Court—in a bitterly divided 54 vote—upheld a public university's right to enforce an "all-comers" antidiscrimination policy against a student group affiliated with the Christian Legal Society (CLS).
As president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA—and as a former professor of law—I have concerns about how this decision may impact our 860 chapters and other campus ministries.
1. Legal Impact
Narrowly construed, the court upheld Hastings Law School's right to require all recognized student organizations to abide by its "all-comers" antidiscrimination policy. This unusual policy mandates that all school-approved groups "allow any student to participate, become a member, or seek leadership positions in the organization, regardless of [her] status or beliefs."
To date, I am aware of only one other public university—a regional school in Maine—that has a similar policy. On its face, the policy seems logically inconsistent and impossible to enforce. Will Democratic student clubs really accept Republicans as leaders? Will Hillel, a national Jewish campus group, embrace Muslim students as voting members? Will Sierra Club chapters follow student leaders who deny global warming?
It is difficult to imagine a large university like Ohio State adopting an "all-comers" policy. Student groups representing affinity groups such as sororities, Latinos, atheists, or the LGBT community would be required to admit anyone and everyone into their inner circles. Sororities, for example, would have to admit male students. The result would be chaotic.
Two factors make this decision particularly disconcerting. First, despite the technical narrowness of the holding, the majority opinion contains sweeping language in support of antidiscrimination policies—particularly as related to religious beliefs and sexual orientation—and in affording broad latitude to university administrators.
The second major disappointment rests in Justice Kennedy's concurrence. Considered the swing vote on the court, he compares CLS's requirement that all members sign its statement of faith with a political loyalty oath. His conclusion—"the era of loyalty oaths is behind us"—is both a disturbing misunderstanding of faith statements and an odd blurring of spiritual and political spheres.
2. Cultural Significance
CLS v. Martinez raises many questions. If religious student groups hold fast to their beliefs and adhere to sexual holiness standards, will they be relegated to second class status? Does this case represent yet another step in the secularization of American society? Will questions of faith be further marginalized vis-à-vis the public square?
The ruling runs counter to four decades of Supreme Court decisions. Over that period, the court has been a protector of students' First Amendment rights to believe, associate, and speak. It has ordered public universities to recognize radical political groups (1972), to open public university buildings to religious student clubs (1981), and even to fund a student-run Christian student newspaper via student fees (1995).
In Martinez, the majority opinion turns the student fees argument on its head, making it a wedge issue against CLS. Let me be perfectly clear on this matter: the vast majority of campus ministries regard such fees to be an irrelevant side show. What really counts is having access to students, facilities, and communications on par with secular student groups.
I draw some hope from InterVarsity's experience with private colleges and universities. Since the First Amendment applies only to governmental action, its protections do not extend to private institutions. It is encouraging that—despite their right to exclude religious student groups—most private school administrators recognize the need for spiritual pluralism on campus. To do otherwise would be to offend 35+ percent of their students, alumni and donors—be they Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or Christian.
Recently, the president of a private liberal arts college became concerned about our chapter's insistence that student leaders be committed to biblical standards of sexual holiness. When the chapter leaders came to his office—a student body officer, a star athlete, and the editor of the campus newspaper—he grasped the importance of keeping the chapter on campus.
3. Theological Reassurance
The church has always had a touch-and-go relationship with civic authorities. Paul's experiences in court were clearly mixed. James and Peter did not fare well with judges either (not to mention Joseph and Daniel). During the first three centuries of the church's existence—as the new faith grew rapidly—public opposition was strong.
As the people of God, we believe in a sovereign God. His purposes will be accomplished whatever obstacles present themselves. While Scripture encourages us to pray for our governing officials, we are reminded that this world is not our home. Christ, not Caesar, is our Lord, our hope, and our salvation.
If—in the worst case scenario—several Christian chapters were to be derecognized as a result of this ruling, God's mission on campus would continue. If access to newly arriving freshman were lost, if campus communication channels were closed or if access to university facilities were denied, the gospel would continue to be presented through small groups, Bible studies and off-campus large groups. Though limiting campus access would no doubt make ministry more difficult, God's purposes will not be thwarted.
Alec Hill is president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on Christian Legal Society v. Martinez include:
Christian Legal Society Loses in Supreme Court Case | Group must allow leaders who disagree with its statement of faith. (June 28, 2010)
Supreme Court on Major Discrimination Case: 'Huh?' | Before the justices can render an opinion in the Christian Legal Society dispute, they'll have to figure out what the facts are. (April 20, 2010)
The End of Religious Freedom? | The nightmare scenarios could very well unfold, but they are not the last word. A Christianity Today editorial (Aprril 19, 2010)
Small Ruling Is Potentially Huge for Student Groups | Christian Legal Society lawyer notes that exceptions to rules can be as discriminatory as rules themselves. (March 19, 2009)
Christian Legal Society Loses Against CA Law School in 9th Circuit | Yesterday's ruling could set an unfortunate precedent for Christian student groups at public colleges. (CT Liveblog, March 18, 2009)