Discrimination and the First Amendment: Christian Legal Society v Martinez


by Shivani Radhakrishnan

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court faced a landmark case on the issue of whether or not a public university law school, Hastings College of the Law, could deny school funding (and related benefits) to a religious student organization because the group requires its officers and voting members to agree with its core religious viewpoints. The Court ruled 5-4 that a public university law school could deny these groups such funding. The majority appealed to a neutral university policy that school funding is contingent on whether a student group allowed all-comers to become members and officers.

But to see the case as upholding a neutral policy that student groups should only receive funding if they allow all-comers is too simplistic. The pith of the issue turns around whether a public university’s attempts to secure equality of access impede on a student group’s free exercise of its beliefs (beliefs that by its very nature exclude other beliefs).

It is interesting to think about what an all-comers policy would mean, if taken to its logical conclusion. What would have happened had a political group, say Students United Against the Death Penalty, required students to be anti-death penalty in order to join? If Hastings enforced the “all-comers” policy, the anti-death penalty student group could be forced to admit a majority of students that support the death penalty. In effect, this could result in the silencing of the anti-death penalty students’ expression, a serious First Amendment concern. For groups that are formed based on a shared group of beliefs, Alito astutely argued, “the consequence of an accept-all-comers policy is marginalization.”

See the full ruling here.