University of Montana Christian Legal Society Files Suit

By on January 2, 2008

Yet another university has impermissibly denied recognition and student fees to the Christian Legal Society (CLS) because of CLS’ requirement that its voting members and officers ascribe to a Statement of Faith regulating, among other things, sexual behavior outside of marriage.

On December 14, the CLS chapter at the University of Montana School of Law (CLS-UM) filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the law school’s denial of recognition to the organization violated the group’s First Amendment rights to free association, free speech, and the free exercise of religion. The facts of the case are familiar—over the last several years, they have been played out at universities around the country that have sought to deny recognition to religious student groups because of those groups’ belief-based membership requirements. According to the complaint:

CLS-UM interprets its Statement of Faith to require that voting members and officers adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs, including the belief that sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman, including adultery, promiscuity, and the sexual conduct between persons of the same sex, is sinful. A person who engages in extramarital sexual conduct or adheres to the viewpoint that such conduct is not sinful is not eligible to become a voting member or serve as an officer of CLS-UM.

However, any and all UM students “are free to attend CLS-UM meetings and events.” Initially, the executive board of the Student Bar Association (SBA) granted CLS-UM temporary recognition. However, when the overall proposed student organization budget—including funding for CLS-UM—was submitted to the student body for approval, students and faculty members objected to CLS-UM’s approval “because of CLS-UM’s voting and membership requirements.” The student body rejected the proposed budget, and at a subsequent meeting, the SBA voted to rescind its recognition of CLS-UM on the grounds that CLS-UM had violated an SBA bylaw requiring “a registered student organization to be ‘open to all members of the School of Law.’” According to CLS-UM’s complaint, however, other recognized student organizations explicitly require their members to adhere to the organization’s beliefs. The Environmental Law Group, for example, limits membership to “persons who have an interest in furthering the purposes” of the group, which are “to promote environmental awareness and provide a forum for student participation in projects and action concerning current environmental issues.”

This is not the first time this issue has come before a court. In March 2005, a federal district judge in North Carolina enjoined UNC-Chapel Hill from applying its nondiscrimination policy to prohibit a Christian fraternity from choosing its members on the basis of religious belief.

In April 2006, a federal district judge in California held that the University of California-Hastings’ law school did not run afoul of the First Amendment when it denied recognition to its CLS chapter; that decision is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, which will hopefully—like the Seventh Circuit—come down in favor of free expression and association. Montana is also in the Ninth Circuit, so that court’s decision in the Hastings case will likely have an impact on CLS-UM’s case.

Most recently, in July 2006, the Seventh Circuit ordered Southern Illinois University’s law school to recognize its CLS chapter, which had been denied recognition on the same grounds as CLS-UM. In its holding, the court recognized the distinction between membership requirements “based on belief and behavior rather than status,” and held that the law school’s attempt to interfere with CLS’ ability to choose its members based on a shared belief system impermissibly “burdens CLS’s ability to express its ideas.”

FIRE will follow this latest case closely, so stay tuned to The Torch for updates.

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