Fighting for Religious Freedom with FIRE

June 30, 2010

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that damages the right of public university students to form student organizations dedicated to promoting and following certain views and beliefs, particularly those that are religious or political.

In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a narrow 5-4 majority upheld the University of California Hastings College of the Law’s denial of official recognition to the campus Christian Legal Society. CLS required its voting members and leaders to sign a statement of faith that outlined its own particular religious worldview because it wanted to ensure, unsurprisingly, that these students were faithful to its mission. Hastings found this requirement discriminatory and unacceptable.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing on behalf of the Court, found that Hastings could deny recognition to CLS because of its insistence on maintaining its religious identity, since Hastings was relying on an “all comers” policy that requires every recognized student group to admit any student as a voting member or leader.

This ruling has the potential to be devastating to Christian groups in particular. In a press release responding to the decision, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) President Greg Lukianoff stated that “we believe the practical effect of this case will be the derecognition of devoutly religious groups-especially evangelical Christian groups.”

For example, in order for CLS to receive the benefits of official recognition from Hastings, such as funding to host speakers and space to hold campus meetings, the group will have to accept as voting members and even leaders anyone who is openly hostile to its mission, such as a militant atheist whose goal is to sabotage CLS’s mission and shut down the organization. Although the Court disregarded this possibility as a mere hypothetical, FIRE has shown that the likelihood of a hostile takeover is not as slim as Justice Ginsburg imagines.

FIRE filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of the Christian Legal Society in February. We argued that the Supreme Court should uphold the First Amendment expressive and associational rights of students on public campuses. Essentially, we advocated for the continued right of belief-based organizations to have a say in who their voting members and leaders are.

Although it is a secular organization, FIRE has been committed throughout its ten-year existence to defending and sustaining religious liberty–in addition to all other First Amendment rights–at America’s colleges and universities. Religious freedom is at stake on college campuses because colleges often enact nondiscrimination policies that forbid the use of religious criteria in leadership selection. Sometimes, harassment policies are even used to punish students who dare to express their religious views on public school property. FIRE knows that when certain religious views are effectively disallowed, the college campus no longer is the free marketplace of ideas the Supreme Court has long recognized it to be.

In that vein, FIRE has defended a number of religious student organizations on campuses across the country. For example, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard College, the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF) did not receive funding from the student government because HRCF required student leaders to sign a profession of faith. FIRE contacted me to see how it could help. Fortunately, the issue was resolved when the student government voted to fund the group after all. Other cases in which FIRE has been involved include the suspension of a Christian group, the derecognition of a Christian group, the refusal to recognize a Christian group, the banning of a showing of The Passion of the Christ, and the banning of RA-led Bible studies in dorms.

Although religious student organizations did not win at the Supreme Court on Monday, they can still take heart that the ruling is far from a mandate for universities to crack down on belief-based student groups. Even so, the will to censor on campus is strong, and we know that many students and administrators would love to take the opportunity to force religious groups to choose between changing their beliefs in order to get funding and being driven underground. FIRE will continue to encourage universities to maintain policies that guarantee students their rights to express their views and to associate with like-minded students.

Schools: University of California Cases: University of California Hastings College of the Law: Denial of Recognition to Christian Law School Group