Religious Freedom and the Courts

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At the center of the case was the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law’s decision to deny the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) official Registered Student Organization (RSO) status and the funding and other benefits that go with it.  Why the exclusion? CLS requires voting members and officers to subscribe to the group’s core religious commitments by signing a Statement of Faith and to agree to live “in a manner consistent” with it.  Hastings officials said this requirement failed to comply with the school’s nondiscrimination policy, thus making CLS ineligible to be an RSO with access to related benefits, such as use of the school name and logo, campus e-mail addresses, mass e-mail privileges and access to certain funding.

Interfaith Alliance joined with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in filing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of neither party, expressing the hope that the Court would prevent public funds from supporting religious activities while still upholding CLS’s freedom to control its message by maintaining its membership criteria.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hastings College, preventing CLS from receiving RSO status and public university funding.  Interfaith Alliance President, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, said the ruling was “rightfully narrow in scope and context” but that it fell short in not affirming the right of student organizations such as CLS to ensure that leadership positions are held by coreligionists who share the organization’s beliefs and vision.

“It would be a shame,” Gaddy said, “if this decision resulted in less diversity of opinion by undercutting Hastings’ purpose of creating a student organization forum – to expose students to a broad range of interests and viewpoints.”

This decision, in conjunction with other recent rulings on religious freedom by the Supreme Court – including the decision this term to overturn the 9th Circuit’s ruling in Salazar v. Buono, which gives the implication that the cross is not a religious symbol – raises serious concerns about our highest court’s ability and willingness to continue to defend our First Amendment.