Hastings Case Tests Religious Freedom on Campus

Americans like to think of their college campuses as marketplaces of ideas where students have the opportunity to freely browse a host of competing beliefs, attitudes and philosophies. Unfortunately, today's academic marketplace is more like a company store. A single, humanistic, decidedly leftist worldview is sold in too many classrooms . . . and the customer refuses delivery at his or her own risk.

A case to be heard by the Supreme Court on Monday illustrates the deep intellectual and religious prejudices of America's academic elite and has the potential to strike a ferocious blow for--or against--religious liberty on university campuses.

In 2004, administrators at the University of California's Hastings College of Law were outraged to learn that the campus's Christian Legal Society chapter required members to sign a statement affirming their Christian beliefs and committing to live by them. Admittedly, this is not an unusual expectation for Christians who are increasingly surrounded by a secular-socialist culture. Nevertheless, it is not substantively different from asking NAACP members to eschew racism.

With Martinez, the high court has an opportunity to either protect or roll back the equal-access freedoms and defenses of religious liberty.

Hastings sponsors some 70 student organizations--from the Armenian Law Students Association to the Usual Suspects Criminal Justice Film Club--so one might think there'd be room for people of faith.

But administrators told the CLS it would have to broaden membership requirements to allow for voting members and even officers who don't hold Christian principles. That is, leadership and voting privileges must be extended to agnostics and avowed atheists.

In other words, the students were free to have a Christian club, Hastings assured them, as long as it wasn't led only by Christians.

The Christian Legal Society members rightly saw the administration's position as deeply biased against people of faith and sued the school for violating their rights protected by the First Amendment.

The law school contends that its policy is designed to ensure equality on campus--every student must be eligible for every club. And as part of a public university, it says, all authorized student organizations should be held to the policy mandates of public institutions even where it conflicts with religious tenets. The school also argues that the organizations really should be open to everybody because so much of the funding that underwrites campus organizations comes from student activity fees.

Simply put, it doesn't wash.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit supported the Hastings position in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez; in 2006, the 7th Circuit, in a nearly identical case at Southern Illinois University (Christian Legal Society v. Walker), did not. The split between those decisions brings the Martinez case to the Supreme Court.

In the past, the high court has repeatedly asserted that a university, by letting a club use its facilities, is not subsidizing that club or putting the government's legal stamp of approval on its activities. Nor, the court has said, does using student fees to underwrite a broad spectrum of student organizations and activities necessitate that every club has to meet with every student's approval.

This is why the outcome of this case is so crucial. With Martinez, the high court has an opportunity to either protect or roll back the equal-access freedoms and defenses of religious liberty it has affirmed in recent years through landmark decisions in cases such as Good News Club v. Milford Central School. It's a measure of how much is at stake that 22 friend-of-the-court briefs from a wide variety of groups have been filed in support of CLS, including one from 14 state attorneys general.

At the outset of the dispute and well into the initial stages of litigation, Hastings said that CLS had violated the university's bans on religious and "sexual orientation" discrimination. After CLS noted that the law school allowed other groups to organize around nonreligious ideas, Hastings suddenly asserted that no group could exclude anybody for any reason. So the Young Democrats, for example, are apparently required to accept Republicans as members and allow them to be elected to leadership positions in their club. That's simply absurd.

Moreover, it's a ploy contorted to camouflage the double standard being applied to CLS simply because it is a Christian organization. Hastings officials hope to hide the fact that on their campus, as at countless other colleges and universities nationwide, people of faith are being deliberately marginalized and excluded not for any real misdemeanors but for having the temerity to suggest that there's an authority higher than school administrators, a truth more compelling than the latest government-dictated cultural doctrine, and a God more worthy of worship than the idols of the left.

A lot of leftists--in the offices of government and in the halls of academia--seem to find those ideas laughable. And yet, watch their faces in the courtrooms and classrooms. They're not laughing. When it comes to eroding freedom to shore up their own politically correct agenda, they are deadly serious.

Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI. Jim Garlow is the chairman of Renewing American Leadership.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/kledge

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