The U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez


Apr. 21, 2010

On April 19, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case that will determine whether the University of California Hastings College of the Law acted appropriately when they refused a campus group official school recognition because the group does not allow non-Christians and gays and lesbians from being voting members or officers. The Christian Legal Society argues the refusal denied them their free association rights; however, Hastings has argued that its nondiscrimination policy is necessary to ensure that all students have equal access to all school-funded and school-recognized groups.

Bob Ritter, staff attorney of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, legal arm of the American Humanist Association, attended oral arguments and offered his analysis:

Of particular note, the use of student activity fees to fund an religious organization and the conduct-speech distinction where not a significant part of the discussion. Strangely, much of the discussion centered on what was Hastings actual policy and how it is enforce–two issues that should have been settled [in lower courts] and not requiring much discussion at the Supreme Court. I wouldn't be surprised to see a typical 5-4 split among liberals and conservatives, with Justice Kennedy being a swing vote. On the other hand, the case could be sent back to the 9th Circuit with instruction for more fact finding (unlikely, but a possibility) because the 9th Circuit's decision was only 2 sentences. We'll have to wait until the end of June (when the Court adjourns) to find what the justices really think.

On March 15, the American Humanist Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court, arguing that Hastings acted appropriately. The press release announcing the brief appears below.

The American Humanist Association files Amicus Brief in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

(Washington, DC, March 17, 2010) The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, legal arm of the American Humanist Association, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court Monday, arguing that the Court should affirm a decision made by a federal appeals court that the University of California Hastings College of the Law acted appropriately when the they denied recognition to a Christian-only student group. (The brief can be found at the following URL:  )

The lawsuit was launched in 2004 by a chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), a group that was barred from receiving school funds, priority access to facilities and use of Hastings' logo because they did not permit non-orthodox Christians and gays to become voting members or leaders. Hastings had denied a request from the group that they be exempt from the school's nondiscrimination policy, which prohibited student groups from discriminating on the basis of "race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation" as a condition for receiving access to school resources. The District Court ruled that Hastings' policy was permissible and did not constitute a violation of the groups' free speech rights, contrary to CLS's argument. The 9th Circuit Court affirmed the policy was permissible because it was viewpoint neutral and reasonable.

"A University has every right to prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or sexual orientation among student groups that receive school resources," said Bob Ritter, AHLC attorney and counsel of record for the brief. "Public schools have an interest in making sure all students feel welcome, whether they are religious, non-religious, straight or gay. And ensuring that their resources don't go to groups that violate policies of nondiscrimination is an appropriate measure to keep universities inclusive."

"To be clear, this case is not about the school limiting student groups' free speech rights," Ritter added. "Groups that wish to discriminate in their membership are free to do so as privately operated entities, but they are not entitled to school sanction of their discriminatory policies."

The AHLC's brief argues that Hastings and other publicly-run institutions or entities can establish a conditional limited public forum for free speech, as long as the conditions for using the forum are neutral and generally applied. "A university can require student groups to abide by certain policies as long as those policies are applied universally, without bias or favor," Ritter clarified.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed the friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Humanist Association, The American Ethical Union, Atheist Alliance International, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Institute for Humanist Studies, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and Secular Student Alliance.