WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed to split sharply Monday on whether a law school can deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join, a case that could determine whether nondiscrimination policies trump the rights of private organizations to determine who can — and cannot — belong.
In arguments tinged with questions of religious, racial and sexual discrimination, the court heard from the Christian Legal Society, which wants recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits.
Hastings, located in San Francisco, turned them down, saying no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.
The Christian group requires that voting members sign a statement of faith. The group also regards "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" as being inconsistent with the statement of faith.
"CLS has all of its activities entirely open to everyone," lawyer Michael McConnell said. "What it objects to is being run by non-Christians."
The case could have wider ramifications, though:
"If Hastings is correct, a student who does not even believe in the Bible is entitled to demand to lead a Christian Bible study, and if CLS does not promise to allow this, the college will bar them," said McConnell, a former judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
University lawyer Gregory Garre pointed out that it requires the same thing from all groups that want to operate on campus.
"It is so weird to require the campus Republican Club to admit Democrats, not just to membership, but to officership," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes, right? That's crazy."
Other justices questioned where a ruling for the Christian group would lead.
I think this case is an interesting one because it doesn't just involve freedom of religion and freedom of speech, but also the freedom of assembly and association. People can (and will) argue that the Christian group is free to meet--off campus, with no official recognition by the school, and with no access to the funding that other student groups can access, but that's the price they have to pay for being "intolerant" and "exclusive."
But that's really just begging the question. The Christian group has said that its activities will be open to anyone--there's no secret purpose of discrimination here. What they want is to keep the voting membership to those who share the group's values and purpose for existence. But apparently in twenty-first century America such a mild request is proof of discriminatory intent and hostile bigotry against those who aren't Christian.
Taken to its logical conclusions, though, as Justice Scalia does, the idea is crazy. College Republicans shouldn't have their agendas set by voting members who are Democrats; a same-sex advocacy student group shouldn't have to allow fundamentalist Christians to vote on their policies or agenda items; a Jewish student group shouldn't have to let Muslims be voting members; and a Christian student group should not have its policies and goals at the mercy of atheist students. To demand this is to make all groups exercises in futility and lunacy, and to teach students the lesson that individuality of thought and ideas is the one form of "diversity" which simply isn't permissible, and has to be stamped out at all costs.
The sad thing is that this is, indeed, what society things of individuality of thought and ideas. It doesn't matter, for instance, to our consumerist monolith if you are a Coke addict, a member of the Pepsi generation, or even a coffee achiever, so long as you represent a diversity of caffeine consumers. But it does matter, and matters very much, if you are a serious person of faith who questions all consumption, or if you are an independent thinker who likes fountain sodas from a tiny old-fashioned soda shop, or if your religion rejects caffeine altogether; those aren't ideas to be accommodated, but crazy notions which require the bare minimum of tolerance. The analogy of beverage purchasing can only go so far, but the idea is simple: our culture loves diversity, so long as it's shallow, skin-deep, and concerned primarily with external qualities--but our culture hates the diversity that lets a serious Roman Catholic defend his Church's teachings against homosexual sex, or a serious Christian stand vigil outside an abortion clinic, or...but you get the idea.
However this case is decided, the freedoms we cherish of assembly and association are going to come under attack with greater frequency in the coming decades--because the right to gather with like-minded people will be seen as intolerant and bigoted, something that challenges our culture in ways it would rather not be challenged.