Supreme Court to decide if campus Christian group can ban gays

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Supreme Court will review whether a public university may refuse to officially recognize a campus Christian group because it bars gays and nonbelievers from its membership.

The decision to hear the case will require the justices to examine the intersection of religious freedom and a university's ability to enforce nondiscrimination policies.

The Christian Legal Society at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco several years ago began requiring its members to sign a statement of faith. The society says a person who "advocates or unrepentantly engages in sexual conduct outside of a marriage between a man and a woman" cannot become a member of the group and participate in setting its policies.

The university then refused it official status, meaning it was ineligible for such perks as meeting space or a cut of the school's student activities fee. The university said the society was the first group to refuse to abide with its policy that organizations "not discriminate unlawfully on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation."

The Christian group, whose mission is to "inspire, encourage, and equip lawyers and law students . . . to proclaim, love and serve Jesus Christ," sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit backed the university.

That conflicted with a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit on a similar suit at Southern Illinois University.

A coalition of campus religious groups had urged the Supreme Court to take the case, saying "state university officials may not condition a religious group's access to campus facilities on relinquishment of its religious identity."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which supports the university, said in a statement that the court should make it clear that groups seeking public funding and official recognition on public college campuses must be open to all.

"If the student religious group wins, it will mean some students will be compelled to support clubs that won't even admit them as members," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

The case will probably be argued in March.

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