Organizations support freedom of religion, but neither party, in case to be argued Monday before U.S. Supreme Court

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Groups filed friend-of-the-court brief defending religious freedom principles in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court should protect the religious autonomy of student groups that have expressive association rights to meet on campus as part of a public university’s forum, but not in a manner that clears the way for government funding of religion, says the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Interfaith Alliance.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday, April 19, in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. At issue is whether the Constitution permits the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law to exclude the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) from official recognition and attendant benefits afforded other clubs solely because the group requires its members to share its core religious commitments.

In the only friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of neither party in the case, the Baptist Joint Committee and the Interfaith Alliance wrote that a public university’s laudable goal of preventing discrimination is not impeded by allowing a student group to control its own message and membership criteria. The groups support the constitutional requirement that religious clubs on a public university campus receive equal access to a forum for speech that is offered to other student organizations.

CLS allows anyone to attend meetings, but only those who sign its Statement of Faith and agree to live “in a manner consistent” with it can become voting members. The dispute arose when the law school denied CLS official recognition for failing to comply with its nondiscrimination policy. Hastings maintains that recognized student organizations must not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, natural origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation. In fact, the parties stipulated that Hastings requires recognized student organizations to have “open membership.”

The High Court agreed to hear CLS’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the chapter had to follow the school’s nondiscrimination policy to participate as a recognized student organization with access to related benefits, such as use of school name and logo, campus e-mail addresses, mass e-mail privileges and access to certain funding.

On the membership issue, the Baptist Joint Committee and Interfaith Alliance brief argues there is nothing extraordinary about a religious club wanting to control its message by having exclusionary criteria for membership. 

According to the brief, “for CLS, allowing those who would not affirm their Statement of Faith to become voting members would alter who they are.”

The law school’s nondiscrimination policy “interferes with rights of expressive association and destroys its intended purpose of allowing student groups to meet around common interests and to encourage the exchange of ideas on campus.”

BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker said the policy is problematic because it does not allow groups to develop viewpoints that are diverse from other groups. “What Hastings gives with one hand — a forum for student expression — it takes away with the other hand by not allowing CLS to define itself and its message.”

The Hastings policy is further complicated because it also provides for funding of student organizations, raising additional religious liberty concerns. As the brief explains, the constitutional principle of equal access for a speech forum “is constitutionally and logically tied to principles of no establishment that protect against government sponsorship of religion.” In linking access to the forum with access to university funds, Hastings threatens “sponsorship” of Christian fellowship and Bible study through direct government funding. This is a far cry from the indirect, incidental forum funding the Court has previously permitted in such contexts.

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, underscored the importance of a narrowly tailored decision by the High Court.

”Regardless of which side prevails, the Court should avoid rendering a decision that allows direct funding of a private religious organization and their religious activities or that unduly curtails the expressive association rights of the organization,” Gaddy said.

The Baptist Joint Committee is a 74-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. For more information visit