Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Supreme Court: Universities Can Regulate Funded Groups' Membership

As reported by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hastings Christian Fellowship v. Martinez handed down last week addressed the constitutionality of a public educational institution conditioning access to a school-funded student organization based on compliance with an "all-comers" policy.  Like most colleges and universities, the Hastings College of Law at the University of California required all student organizations to obtain official recognition before they can receive the institution's support for their activities.  Hastings referred to such an organization as a "Registered Student Organization" (RSO).  An RSO provides a student group with several benefits, including the use of school funds, facilities, and channels of communication, as well as the school's name and logo.  In exchange, any RSO must comply with the school's Nondiscrimination Policy, which mirrors California state law barring discrimination on a number of bases, including religion and sexual orientation.  Hastings interprets this policy to mandate acceptance of all comers; namely, an RSO must permit any student to participate, become a member or seek leadership in the organization, regardless of that student's status or beliefs.  Hasting's Nondiscrimination Policy was problematic for the Christian Legal Society, which mandates that its members sign a "statement of faith" adhering to the Society's theological views, including, as the Supreme Court noted, the belief that "sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman."   When seeking status as an RSO, the Society also requested an exemption from the school's nondiscrimination policy, alleging that such policy would violate its First Amendment right to freedom of association by forcing it to include members who do not share its fundamental views.  Hastings refused to grant the exemption, leading to the lawsuit.

Writing for the 5-justice majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the Hastings case was not simply about "expressive association" under the First Amendment, on which the Court ruled in Boys Scouts of America v. Dale (upholding the Boy Scouts right to refuse membership to a gay assistant scoutmaster). Rather, the Court held that this case was governed by the "limited public forum" doctrine, which permits colleges, universities and other institutions that receive government funds to restrict First Amendment rights provided they have a valid reason.  As to Hastings, the Court found that it had valid reasons, including the encouragement of "tolerance, cooperation, and learning among students."  In response to the Society's contention that the school's nondiscrimination policy discriminated against its tenets, the Court noted that the Hastings policy affected all student groups; specifically, that a Republican student organization must admit avowed Democrats, and likewise.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Hastings policy draws no distinction between groups based on their message or perspective; its requirement that all student groups accept all comers is "textbook viewpoint neutral."


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