WASHINGTON (CN) - In a case pitting First Amendment rights against anti-discrimination principles, the Supreme Court appeared divided over whether a public law school in San Francisco can refuse to recognize a Christian student group that bars gays and non-believers from voting or holding office. "To require this Christian society to allow atheists not just to join, but to conduct Bible classes ... that's crazy," Justice Antonin Scalia said, to laughter.
The justices' questions revealed the court's ideological divide, with liberal justices appearing to back the nondiscrimination policy at the Hastings College of Law, and conservative justices raising concerns about its scope -- and whether it was unfairly applied to the Christian Legal Society.
Hastings, a public law school, requires recognized student groups to let all members vote or hold office, regardless of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs -- the so-called "all-comers" policy.
Hastings' attorney, Gregory Garre, said the nondiscrimination policy is constitutional because it applies equally to all student groups.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who appeared sympathetic to the law school's goal of promoting diversity, said it was "troubling" that Hastings allowed non-religious groups to limit their membership. A student group called La Raza, for example, restricts leadership to students of Latino or Mexican descent.
Michael McConnell, counsel for the Christian group, argued that the school's application of the policy was itself discriminatory, because Hastings appeared to single out religious groups. "If the student organizations are not allowed to have a coherent set of beliefs," he said, "there can be no diversity among them."
He called the policy "blatantly unconstitutional" and "manifestly overbroad."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated that she disapproved of second-guessing the school's policy, however "ill-advised" it may be. She pointed out that no group has been sabotaged or hijacked by opponents, as the Christian Legal Society feared, and that four law schools, including Columbia and Georgetown, have similar anti-discrimination policies.
McConnell quickly noted that those law schools are private, not public.
Recognized student groups are eligible to receive funding and other benefits from the school, including the use of campus facilities and bulletin boards.
In earlier proceedings, the 9th Circuit sided with Hastings in a two-sentence ruling that Justice Samuel Alito seemed to find cursory, given the "hundreds and hundreds of pages of amicus briefs."
The Supreme Court took up the case, in part because other courts, including the 7th Circuit in Chicago, have ruled for different chapters of the same Christian group.
The high court's ruling could extend to so-called charitable choice programs, in which religiously affiliated groups can receive federal funding for social services, while still requiring staffers to hold certain religious viewpoints.
The Christian Legal Society drew support from other religious groups, including two Orthodox Jewish groups and a Muslim group, and attracted at least one unlikely bedfellow. The Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty argued in its brief that a group should not be forced to "cede control over its message to those who reject its core beliefs."
The American Bar Association, the Association of American Law Schools, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State were among the groups that filed briefs on behalf of Hastings.
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