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WASHINGTON – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday seemed to split sharply on whether a law school can deny recognition to a Christian student group because it will not let gays join, a case that could determine whether college nondiscrimination policies trump the rights of private organizations to determine who can – and cannot – belong to their ranks.
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.”
A federal judge threw out the Christian group’s lawsuit claiming its U.S. constitutional rights of association, free speech and free exercise had been violated, a decision that was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a two-sentence opinion in 2004.
The case could go clarify whether religious-based and other private organizations that want federal funding have the right to discriminate against people who do not hold their core beliefs. The court is expected to rule later th8is year. mer.
“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,” McConnell said.
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.
“Are you suggesting that if a group wanted to exclude all black people, all women, all handicapped persons, whatever other form of discrimination a group wants to practice, that a school has to accept that group and recognize it, give it funds and otherwise lend it space?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
No, McConnell said. “The stipulation is that they may not exclude based on status or beliefs. We have only challenged the beliefs, not status. Race, any other status basis, Hastings is able to enforce.”
“What if the belief is that African Americans are inferior?” Justice John Paul Stevens said.
“Again, I think they can discriminate on the basis of belief, but not on the basis of status,” McConnell said.
Garre pointed out that the Supreme Court ruled earlier that Bob Jones University in South Carolina could not ban students who believed in interracial dating and still receive federal funds. “Here we have a group that wants to exclude members on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that was only Garre’s interpretation. “It’s a religious-oriented group that wants to exclude people who do not subscribe to their religious beliefs,” he said.
Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether Hastings has allowed other groups to exist on campus that did not allow all comers to join. But Garre pointed out that the Christian Legal Society had stipulated in the lower courts that Hastings did have an all-comers policy, and that registered student organizations must accept all law students as voting members regardless of status or belief.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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