Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Supreme Court, Campus Ministry and Discrimination

A case that is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court could have wide-ranging ramifications for those involved with campus ministry. A Christian-based organization, Christian Legal Society (CLS), is hoping to gain official recognition as a student organization from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. However, the school has not allowed their paperwork to go through because the group has some stipulations on who can become a leader within their organization. Specifically, the Christian Legal Society has been denied because they ask their leaders to agree to the group's statement of faith and abide by certain codes of conduct in line with biblical standards for morality.

To learn more about this pivotal case, you can read here.

As a campus minister, I am watching this case closely. What is at stake here is whether Christian organizations can require their leadership to agree to a common set of beliefs and behavior that is in agreement with the purpose and philosophy of the organization. Amazingly, Hastings rejected the CLS's application as a registered student organization not just because they felt it discriminated against homosexuals but because it discriminated against those with other religious beliefs.

The school is not saying that the CLS can't exist on campus but they would be denied certain privileges that other registered organizations are afforded. These privileges would include such things as funding from the school, the ability to reserve on-campus meeting rooms, set up informational tables on the campus, etc. Should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the school's decision, we would be heading down a very slippery slope.

Because all state run universities have some sort of non-discrimination clause for student organizations, Christian organizations have had to agree to keep their group open to all students. However, when choosing its leadership, Christian groups (like others) have been allowed to only select those that are in agreement with the group's core beliefs and practices. Should Christian groups now be required to select anyone as a leader then those groups could cease be greatly hindered in their ability to live out their mission.

Since religious organizations are based upon the beliefs of its members, they inherently discriminate within its leadership against those with different beliefs. And so do other groups. The president of the atheist group does not believe in God and the leader of the College Republicans is not a Democrat. A women's group is not forced to have a male chauvinist as it's leader nor is the Gay and Lesbian Society headed up by someone that believes homosexuality is sinful.

In denying the CLS as an official organization, the school has stated that they believe the group is discriminating against homosexuals. I find it odd that they are not coming to the defense of heterosexual students that are engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage also. Because, in reality, many more straight students are denied leadership positions in Christian organizations because of their extramarital activities. Since the CLS does not accept leaders who exhibit "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle", it can be considered that any sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and woman -- heterosexuality, homosexuality or anything else -- would be a disqualifier for leadership.

Should Christian groups on college campuses be required to accept anyone into leadership positions, then there would be a dramatic shift in how campus ministries would operate. By being denied meeting space, funding and other similar amenities, Christian groups would have to operate in a much more low-key and relational manner. The big meetings and on-campus events would be a thing of the past as we would be forced to meet in smaller group settings without official recognition by the school.

Throughout history the Christian message has spread rapidly during times when Christians were persecuted or churches were not recognized by the government. So although I hope the Supreme Court is consistent with our country's value of freedom of religion, God is not limited by whether a school recognizes a group. As long as God is in it then His name will be made known.

1 comment:

burkefirm said...

I was a bit disappointed in the CLS oral argument strategy before the Supremes. There was considerable dispute about what the Hastings "polcy" actually was (or more precisely, what policy was in issue in the Court).

Was it:

Policy A: No registered student organization (RSO) may discriminate on the basis of certain prescribed criteria (including race, sex, national origin, sexual orientation). CLS denies voting membership (and leadership) to persons based on their attitudes toward sexual matters. This is discrimination within one of the certain categories and is not allowed for RSOs.

Policy B: RSOs must accept ALL persons for full membership (voting and leadership qualification), and no RSO may exclude any person from membership rights based on ANY element in that person's belief system. Thus, Muslim groups must accept anti-Muslims, Democrats much accept Republicans, motorcycle clubs must accept motorcycle-haters, and Christians must accept atheists and those who advocate homosexuality.

Hastings basically sought to change its policy from A to B, believing (I think correctly) that this gave them a stronger case.

CLS sought to charge Hastings with Policy A, creating some confusion in the argument and diverting a lot of attention from the key issue, which is this:

1. Christian groups have the inherent First Amendment right to form and meet, as private organizations, and to exclude persons based on faith-based membership criteria (no one questions this proposition).

2. And the State school can establish RSOs, which provide additional benefits (such as funding) for private groups which become RSOs.

3. Can the State, as a price of admission to RSO status, require a group to surrender its belief-based membership criteria, so that it must fully accept "all comers" to admission? In other words, to require, as a condition of RSO status, that it not discriminate against ANYONE for ANY reason?

It's a harder case for CLS to make with Policy B, granted. And litigating on the basis of Policy B is bolder for CLS.

But I would argue that State action which requires, as a condition of a Government benefit, any religious group to surrender its First Amendment "right of religious association" (and suffer the attendant burdens on its faith) must be subject to "strict scrutiny" -- the State would then have to show that (a) it is advancing a COMPELLING State interest through its conditioning of the benefit and (b) the method chosen is the least restrictive way of advancing that interest.

I do not believe the school can pass that test.

CLS should have, in my view, said "OK, you changed your policy from A to B. You think that is a winner for you. Not so. We'll give you the benefit of the doubt and allow you to claim Policy B is your True One. And we'll show the Court why even Policy B is unconstitutional."

The muddle created by the A vs. B argument is a distraction and it's too bad the decision will be burdened by it.