Birds of a doctrinal feather

gallery-75208-Birds-on-a-Wire-WallstickerThe church-state junkie in me really does not know where to begin when it comes to evaluating the mainstream media coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear the case pitting the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco against the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society. In the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, there was this strange passage:

Hastings was sued in October 2004 by the Christian Legal Society, which requires voting members to sign a statement committing to "orthodox" evangelical Protestant or Catholic beliefs. A student is ineligible, the group says, if he or she "advocates or unrepentantly engages in sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman."

OK, look at the sneer quotes around the word "orthodox."

Is the newspaper actually saying that there is some doubt about the historical fact that the ancient Christian churches -- Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (let's leave the complex Protestant timeline out of this, for a moment) -- have for the past two millennia taught that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin? In effect, is the newspaper going postmodern on us and saying that it is impossible to establish this kind of fact about the history of doctrine in Christianity?

I'm not saying that anyone in the newsroom has to agree with this doctrine. I am saying that it is inaccurate -- bad journalism, in other words -- to say that small-o and large-O doctrines do not exist on this kind of question. Now, obviously, modern churches are free to change their doctrines on all kinds of creedal and sacramental issues (hello Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori), but that doesn't change basic facts about history before those changes in those isolated churches.

But I digress.

I was fascinated that in two major California newspapers, the copy desks let the stories go to print without one essential paragraph of facts. In this age of equal-access laws, what other kinds of groups exist on the Hastings campus, in addition to the Christian Legal Society? Do any of these other groups have doctrines or beliefs that define them?

Why does that matter? Here's a key exchange in the Chronicle piece:

"Religious groups have a right to require their officers to share their religious faith," said Kim Colby, an attorney with the group, which has chapters at 165 law schools around the country and encourages lawyers to apply biblical principles. "If, at every meeting, the president of the group said, 'Today we're going to discuss whether Jesus was the son of God,' that's going to bog the group down."

But Ethan Schulman, an attorney for Hastings, said the issue in the case is whether public universities are obligated to subsidize discriminatory groups.

"This is about a blanket exclusion of gay and lesbian students and students who don't hold what the Christian Legal Society describes as orthodox Christian beliefs," Schulman said. "If they're going to use public money and public facilities, they have to be open to all interested students."

Note that the CLS allows all kinds of people to attend its meetings. The issue is who gets to vote and assume leadership roles. Does a club have to allow people to assume leadership if they completely and utterly reject the mission and beliefs of the organization? Does a Palestinian student group need to be open to Zionist leaders? What does a Green organization do if dozens of people show up -- to vote and to seek leadership -- who do not believe in environmentalism and want to corrupt the group's work?

geeseSeveral years ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about a similar case. Here is how I opened that piece.

It took a few minutes for leaders of the Bisexual, Gay & Lesbian Alliance at Rutgers University to realize something was wrong at their back-to-school meeting.

The hall was full of unfamiliar students wanting to become members. Most were carrying Bibles with markers in the first chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. They also had copies of the campus policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of "race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital or veteran status."

Truth is, this scene hasn't happened at Rutgers or anywhere else -- so far.

What if it did? What if conservative Christians tried to rush a gay-rights group and elect new leaders? What if, when told they couldn't join because they rejected its core beliefs, evangelicals cited cases in which Christian groups were punished for refusing leadership roles to homosexuals? What if, when jeered by angry homosexuals, evangelicals called this verbal violence rooted in religious bigotry and, thus, harassment?

So what other kinds of groups are accepted, under the Hastings policy? Who makes the cut? The Chronicle doesn't tell us and the Los Angeles Times doesn't tell us either. I think that's a rather important hole in the story, if equal-access laws still apply to religious and non-religious groups on state campuses.

The information, however, is not that hard to find. Check it out. There are some interesting groups, issues and implied doctrines and identities in this list. However, I do find it interesting that HAGL (Hastings Alliance of Gays and Lesbians) is not in this version of the list. Is this complete? There is no legal society for LesBiGay students on this campus in San Francisco?

Stay tuned. I expect this issue to be pivotal in the arguments before the Supreme Court. Oh, one other factor: In the Hastings student handbook, does it clearly state in black and white that the religious liberties of students will be limited in this way on this campus? It is my understanding that policies of this kind -- such as codes that limit free speech -- must be stated clearly in public documents.

Just asking.

Please respect our Commenting Policy