On April 19, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case that will determine whether a public institution can refuse official recognition to a religiously-based organization that prevents those who do not share its religious and moral values from becoming voting members. The case arose in 2004 when a chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) expressed a desire to register as an official student group at the University of California's Hastings College of Law. After six years of litigation in lower courts, the case is now before the Supreme Court. In the folowing publication, David Masci, a senior researcher for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, answers questions about the case and explains how the high court's decision could affect the rules governing a wide array of groups that accept government funding.
The case involves the concept of freedom of association, and the right of the Christian Legal Society at the University of California-Hastings to deny voting membership to students who refuse to profess belief in the central ideas of the organization. Among them, of course, is the politically unpopular Christian doctrine against homosexuality. Groups that are officially recognized by the school enjoy certain privileges, including public funding. But CLS requirements effectively bar non-Christians and non-celibate gays and lesbians from becoming voting members or assuming leadership positions, which is in direct conflict with the law school's non-discrimination policy.
When most people think of the First Amendment, what comes to mind is a man with a megaphone, a labor dispute that results in a strike, civil rights leaders marching in the street, and political activism, among other things. Of course, all of those things are protected, but the common perceptions of free speech touch upon only a small subset of the broad protections stemming from the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Among those rights, besides freedom of speech, are the rights of freedom of assembly and of the press, and protection from the establishment of religion and allowing for its free exercise. Within these rights, though, there are other guarantees that we have come to expect. One is somewhat obvious-freedom of conscience, which is the idea that every individual is free to think and believe as he or she wishes. Combining that same idea with the freedom to assemble, another commonly cited right naturally follows-the right to freedom of association. Freedom of association allows like-minded people to form organizations and band together for a particular cause. Even I am a member of such an organization-the FIRE's Campus Freedom Network, a grassroots organization dedicated to defending and sustaining free speech on our nation's college campuses.
Along with founding, managing, and especially in “controlling” such an organization, you would think that members could be expected to at least share the basic beliefs, right? This might not seem like an easy question to answer without ...