Public Universities Can Deny Aid To Biased Clubs, Says Appeals Court

Public universities are not required to give support to student organizations that discriminate, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The dispute arose at Hastings College of the Law, a University of California division in San Francisco. A student chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) sought official recognition and funding from student activity fees but was denied because the organization does not allow non-Christians and gays to join.

Hastings gives official recognition, including funding, to student organizations willing to abide by certain policies, among them non-discrimination. The CLS chapter had followed the guidelines for a number of years but in 2004 changed its policies, denying membership to anyone unwilling to sign a statement of faith and to those who engage in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.”

Hastings withdrew recognition and funding of the group but still permitted it to meet on campus. The CLS chapter, saying that was not enough, filed suit.

A federal court ruled for the school, and now that decision has been affirmed on appeal.

The March 17 ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Kane by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was just one paragraph long and refers to an earlier ruling in a similar case from a public high school.

Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which supported the CLS chapter, told the San Francisco Chronicle that rulings like this “require religious organizations to include people in their groups who disagree with what the religious groups believe. That’s a violation of the First Amendment, free speech and freedom of religion.”

But Americans United pointed out that Hastings has the right to control how student fees are spent. The school has the right, AU argues, to make certain that none of its money ends up subsidizing groups that discriminate. (AU reiterated these points in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in this case.)

Ethan Schulman, a lawyer who represented the law school, told the Chronicle he was pleased with the ruling. Had the decision gone the other way, Schulman said, it “would carve a gaping loophole in those non-discrimination policies” and “force the law school to subsidize discriminatory groups.”