Conflicting Rights

August 29, 2005

A federal appeals court has ordered Southern Illinois University to recognize a Christian group—regardless of the fact that the group’s procedures may violate other anti-bias rules at the campus.

The ruling granted an injunction that restored the recognition for the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society at the university’s Carbondale campus. The order by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was not a final decision on the case. But the ruling—and a strongly worded dissent—provide a good indication of the thinking of the appeals court on the debate over religious groups at public colleges.

The Christian Legal Society is a national organization of lawyers and law students. According to court records, it bars gay people from being members of its group out of the belief that sexual activity between people of the same sex violates Christian beliefs. Officials at Southern Illinois said that the legal society’s rules violated university, state and federal equal opportunity regulations. But the appeals court, in granting the injunction, said that the group’s First Amendment rights were at risk and that the evidence suggested that the university could not justify the denial of recognition.

The order granting the injunction criticized the university for not specifying which anti-bias laws the Christian Legal Society was violating. But even assuming that there are rules barring discrimination against gay people, the appeals court suggested that they may be powerless. The ruling cited the 2000 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the right of the Boy Scouts to bar gay scoutmasters, and said that this ruling gave the legal society the First Amendment right to discriminate.

In a dissent, however, Judge Diane P. Wood said that the order incorrectly applied the Boy Scouts ruling. In that case, she noted, the Boy Scouts were facing pressure to have a gay troop leader. In this case, Southern Illinois was only denying the Christian Legal Society official recognition; it was not seeking to change its membership policies. “No one is asking [the legal group] to accept a single homosexual member,” she wrote, adding that the group “is free to follow the commands of its own creed.”

Judge Wood also said that the difference between recognized and non-recognized groups was not so great that First Amendment issues were raised. She noted that the Christian group could continue to meet on campus, and that the only limits would be on access to some bulletin boards and that the group would have to pay if it wanted to rent an auditorium.

The majority ruling, however, said that a 1972 ruling by the Supreme Court severely limited the ability of a public college to bar student groups. That ruling—in a case involving recognition of Students for a Democratic Society—said that only a threat to public order could justify barring a student group from equal treatment on campus.

Southern Illinois officials did not respond to requests for comment.

A statement from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which backed the Christian group, praised the court for granting the injunction. “When the university prohibits religious organizations from engaging in so-called religious discrimination, it goes far beyond the requirements of existing law to impose its own mission and policies on faith-based groups,” the statement said.

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Schools: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale