U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Student Group Who Wants Access to School Funds and Facilities

Posted by: Francis H. Sheppard

09.03.10

Can public universities require student groups to admit “all comers” as members if they want access to campus funds and facilities? On June 28, 2010,  the United States Supreme Court said yes, and upheld a state law school’s anti-discrimination policy in Christian Legal Society Chapter of the Univ. of Cal., Hastings Coll. of Law v. Martinez, 561 130 S.Ct. 2971 (2010). The Court ruled that a public university could deny official recognition, and the benefits that come with such recognition, to student groups that do not comply with a school’s requirement that registered student organizations accept all comers as members, even those who do not share the group’s religious beliefs.      

During the academic year of 2004-2005, The Christian Legal Society at Hastings College of Law (CLS) applied to become a registered student organization at the school. All registered student organizations (RSOs) must comply with the school’s nondiscrimination policy, which bars discrimination on a number of bases, including, but not limited to, discrimination against religion and sexual orientation. Essentially, an RSO must allow any student to become a member of its organization regardless of status or belief in order to receive certain benefits such as use of school funds, facilities and the Hastings name and logo. Hastings rejected the Christian Legal Society’s application to become a registered student organization on the grounds that the group excluded students based on religion and sexual orientation.  The CLS requires members to sign a “Statement of Faith” and to conduct their lives within certain outlined principles such as not engaging in premarital sex, homosexual conduct and maintaining similar religious beliefs.  The CLS sued the school, arguing that the school’s refusal to allow it to become a registered student organization violated its First Amendment rights to free speech, expressive association, and free exercise of religion.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court applied a limited-public-forum First Amendment analysis and ruled that the policy is a “reasonable and viewpoint neutral” condition for student groups to receive funding and access to campus facilities. The Court held that the requirement was reasonable because it ensured that the opportunities gained by participation were available to all students. Moreover, the Court reasoned that the requirement is consistent with state law prohibitions on discrimination and serves the legitimate purpose of bringing together individuals with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Finally, the Court held that the requirement that registered student organizations accept all members was viewpoint neutral because the school did not impair the CLS’ right to expressive association, rather it simply denied the CLS the use of school funds or facilities. 

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