The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't taken on many significant religion cases lately. Perhaps the justices were resting up for what could be one of the biggest rulings yet: Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which went before the court April 19, is in some eyes the title fight between anti-discrimination laws and religious identity. It's a case that both sides have long been waiting for.
At issue is an anti-discrimination rule at Hastings College of the Law (part of the University of California). Hastings says the rule means that the Christian Legal Society's (CLS) on-campus chapter cannot make its leaders sign a statement of faith and abstain from "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle." The school said student group leadership positions must be open to all students—even to those who would seek such positions precisely in order to destroy the purpose of the group.
If CLS loses the case, in time it would mean that "religious and other groups that adhere to traditional moral views could be driven from the public square in the name of enforcing nondiscrimination," CLS told the court.
A loss could "effectively remove evangelical organizations from state college and university campuses throughout the United States," according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the National Association of Evangelicals and other evangelical groups.
Even more than that, "It is not hyperbole to argue that … this case ultimately threatens the future of public education as we know it," said a friend-of-the-court brief from the Rutherford Institute. Hastings is subjecting the freedom of association on campus "to state censorship grounded in political ideology," the organization said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, on the other hand, argued that a CLS win would "considerably weaken our civil rights protections" and set civil rights law back to the days of state-funded racism.
Other friend-of-the-court briefs referenced a related debate that's even more core to the debate on anti-discrimination laws and religious identity: hiring at faith-based institutions.
"If this court determines that CLS does not have any constitutional right to religious association in the context of this case, then there will be little constitutional protection for religious employers, particularly if they receive any kind of government benefit, use government buildings such as schools and convention centers, and/or participate in government-funded programs," said a brief from World Vision, Compassion International, Prison Fellowship, Samaritan's Purse, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and others. "[H]ow this court characterizes the religious associational policies and rights of religious organizations … will likely establish the framework for future deliberations within all branches of government on questions of religious hiring."
The CLS v. Martinez decision will be widely cited, no matter the outcome. But as CLS made clear in its own briefs, it's very much a separate battle. (The CLS case is mostly about speech at a university forum, and money is not central.) If CLS loses, it is far from a foregone conclusion that religious groups that partner with the government will lose their ability to consider faith commitments when hiring. And it's a far journey from that step to the much-discussed scenario of protesters joining organizations en masse to nullify the groups' religious identity or ethical commitments.
Defenders of religious identity safeguards are not scaremongers. The scenarios they propose are actually quite likely if government entities like Hastings or the Supreme Court treat biblical principles as invidious discrimination and then shun organizations with faith commitments.
But none of these scenarios represent the end of the story. In our 2,000 years of history, this would not be the first time Christian behavior has been treated as bigotry. We have seen states take control of religious organizations and churches. And we have seen restrictions on assembly, speech, and free exercise of religion lead to human suffering. We have also been reminded time and again of God's sovereign rule.
Hastings's lawyers say CLS attendance has actually doubled since it was denied recognition as a campus organization. All's well that ends well? No: justice and legal precedent should prompt a ruling for CLS regardless.
CLS says, to the contrary, that "non-recognition has nearly destroyed the CLS chapter." The light of the gospel that CLS proclaims is in no danger of being extinguished. Some evangelical organizations will meet off campus if they have to—in the catacombs, if it comes to that.
Meanwhile, we will work for justice in the courts, and pray for a day when those who conspire to infiltrate Christian organizations would find the Leader whom our leadership requirements point to, and enter into the relationship that our sexual standards model. Ours is a God whose stories end in redemption and reconciliation, not nightmare scenarios.
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Other news stories related to the Christian Legal Society case include
Court to hear arguments on campus Christian group | The Supreme Court is grappling with whether universities and colleges can deny official recognition to Christian student groups that refuse to let non-Christians and gays join. (Associated Press)
Supreme Court To Hear All-Comers Policy Case | A major case is testing whether state colleges and universities can deny official status and subsidies to student groups that bar homosexuals and other groups from membership. (NPR)
Supreme Court to hear Hastings law school case | The question is whether UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco can refuse to recognize and fund a Christian student group under an anti-discrimination policy. (San Francisco Chronicle)
Other editorials related to the case include:
Politically correct, legally wrong | This cuts at the core of meaningful association; penalizing a group by withholding school benefits only exacerbates the harm. (Washington Post)
A Case of Discrimination | The Christian Legal Society is not being denied any First Amendment rights. (The New York Times)
The case of the Christian club | The court would do better to confront the original issue in the case: whether the Christian Legal Society engaged in impermissible discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. It will find the evidence lacking. (Los Angeles Times)
Previous Christianity Today articles on the Supreme Court and politics & law include:
Supreme Court Will Hear Christian Legal Society Case | Plus: Destroying shrines in Uganda, a COGIC abuse battle, North Carolina's atheist ban, and the latest on Matt Chandler. (December 8, 2009)
The Post-Protestant Supreme Court | Christians weigh in on whether it matters that the high court will likely lack Protestant representation. (April 9, 2010)
Should the Supreme Court Rule that Memorial Crosses are Secular? | Church leaders and observers weigh in on a current debate. (December 2, 2009)
CT covers more political developments on the politics blog.
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