Back in 2004, a Christian student group was denied recognition at the University of California's Hastings College of Law because it required its officers and voting members to uphold certain Christian teachings. The school said that the group couldn't discriminate on the basis of religious belief. One of the teachings that the Christians were required to confess was that Christians should not engage in sexual conduct outside of marriage. The school felt that this was discriminatory against homosexuals. The school offers billboard space and rooms for recognized groups. This group was seen to be outside of the school's nondiscrimination policy and so the group was denied status. The group sued, saying the school had violated its freedom of speech, religion and association.
Five years later, the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to decide whether that's true.
So this is yet another example of how religious freedom and gay rights can come in conflict in the public square. This is a major area of concern for gay activists and proponents of religious freedom and there are going to be some tricky issues to settle. It's important that the media focus on this and give us some good coverage of the matter.
But let's look just at the early media coverage of yesterday's announcement about the Supreme Court. As I noted above, the school claims that a group can't discriminate on the basis of religious belief. They also claim that a recognized group can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But much of the media focused on the latter issue. Take, for instance, this headline from the Christian Science Monitor:
Supreme Court takes case of student group that bars gay members
The group requires members to uphold the traditional Christian teaching that all sex outside of marriage is sinful. This is probably a significant barrier to membership for straight students as well, no? And there's also the issue that students who identify as having same-sex attraction might actually support the ancient Christian teaching on the matter. Gay people do not all look, think or act alike. There are non-heterosexuals who believe sex outside of marriage is sinful just as there are heterosexuals. There has got to be a better way to phrase this headline. The error is compounded in the copy:
The Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco was stripped of its registered student organization status at the college because it refused to allow gay and lesbian students to become voting members or officers of the group.
But that's not actually what happened. The CLS did refuse to do something. But what the group refused to do was to change its statement of Christian faith or its policy against members advocating or unrepentantly engaging in sex outside of marriage. Hastings officials told the group to change its policies. The group refused. Hastings refused to give the group official status. The group no more excludes gays and lesbians than it excludes anyone else who disagrees that sex outside of marriage is sinful. Many other media outlets took the same approach, however.
As bad as the Monitor's story was, however, I thought this brief one, from Adam Liptak of the New York Times, handled things better. Headlined "Rights and Religion Clash in Court":
The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal from a Christian student group that had been denied recognition by a public law school in California for excluding homosexuals and nonbelievers. The case pits anti-discrimination principles against religious freedom.
The group, the Christian Legal Society, says it welcomes all students to participate in its activities. But it does not allow students to become voting members or to assume leadership positions unless they affirm what the group calls orthodox Christian beliefs and disavow "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle." Such a lifestyle, the group says, includes "sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman."
The law school, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, part of the University of California, allows some 60 recognized student groups to use meeting space, bulletin boards and the like so long as they agree to a policy that forbids discrimination on various grounds, including religion and sexual orientation. The school withdrew recognition from the Christian group after it refused to comply with the policy.
With an economy of words, Liptak does a better job of balancing the school's argument that the group discriminates on the basis of religion and sexual orientation. This one will be interesting to cover. The Times piece also had this quote, which I found most interesting:
Judge Diane P. Wood, who was on many short lists for the most recent Supreme Court vacancy, dissented, saying she would have struck the balance in favor of anti-discrimination principles. "Given that universities have a compelling interest in obtaining diverse student bodies," Judge Wood wrote, "requiring a university to include exclusionary groups might undermine their ability to attain such diversity."
See, it's okay to be exclusionary as long as you're excluding the right people!
This quote made me wonder, if such a view were to be upheld by the Supreme Court, whether the government be getting into the business of deciding which religious views are acceptable or not on state-run campuses. There's a lot of rich, meaty territory to cover and a lot of arguments to look out. Kudos to Liptak for including one such argument in his brief, early report.