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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.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled yesterday that a California law school could lawfully bar the school's Christian Legal Society from being recognized as a student group for requiring its members to sign a statement of faith. The ruling could set a precedent for the way Christian organizations can or cannot retain their distinct religious beliefs at public colleges with nondiscrimination policies.

The CLS chapter at the University of California's Hastings College of Law filed a lawsuit in fall 2004 against the college for denying it status as a registered student organization. According to CLS's brief, it was denied official recognition for requiring members to sign a statement of faith, which, among other things, prohibits homosexual conduct. Hastings officials had said CLS's standards violated the school's nondiscrimination policy, which says all student groups "shall not discriminate unlawfully on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation."

CLS's lawsuit claimed that Hastings was practicing viewpoint discrimination and violating CLS's right to expressive association. It claimed that Hastings was applying its policy inconsistently. CLS's brief, page 14?18:

Hastings allows other registered student organizations to require that their leaders and/or members agree with the organization's beliefs and purposes. . . . Outlaw [a pro-gay rights group] is free to remove officers if they fail to support the organization's pro-gay rights purpose; Silenced Right: National Alliance Pro-Life Group may require its members to support its pro-life purposes; . . . Hastings' nondiscrimination policy is viewpoint discriminatory, as it allows a vegetarian club to require that officers and members not eat meat, but prohibits an Orthodox Jewish group for requiring its officers and members to abstain from pork for religious reasons.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals did not interpret Hastings's nondiscrimination policy that way, however. Its two-sentence ruling from yesterday:

The parties stipulate that Hastings imposes an open membership rule on all student groups - all groups must accept all comers as voting members even if those individuals disagree with the mission of the group. The conditions on recognition are therefore viewpoint neutral and reasonable.

CLA has not posted a response to its website yet. It is facing similar fights at other colleges, including the University of Iowa, where more than 100 faculty and staff have signed a petition calling for the school to stop funding its CLA chapter. CLA won similar cases in summer 2005 against Arizona State University and Southern Illinois University.

Inside Higher Ed and The San Francisco Chronicle covered the Hastings story.

Listen to the oral arguments here, and check CT's website later for deeper analysis of this case's implications for religious organizations on public college campuses.

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