Free to associate on what terms?

On the face of it, the case of the Christian Legal Society versus the University of California’s Hastings College of Law sounds cut and dried. How can the law school demand that the Christian group accept as members people who vehemently disagree with the group’s religious views?

But the case heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court is complex and confusing enough that even the justices themselves seemed uncertain. “It’s frustrating for us not to know what kind of case we have in front of us,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said at one point.

Is this a basic case of freedom of association, as protected by the First Amendment? If so, the court should come down strongly on the side of the Christian Legal Society and its right to associate only with like-minded members.

Or is it, as the law school contends, an effort by one group to take advantage of all the advantages that come with being sanctioned by the public school — perks such as public meeting space, a share of student activity fees and access to the college e-mail network — without abiding by the school’s anti-discrimination rules?

The college might have a stronger case if not for the claims made by the Christian Legal Society that the law school doesn’t treat every group the same. Its policy is targeted primarily at Christian groups that oppose homosexuality, the society contends.

Beyond that, even the law school’s acting chancellor has acknowledged that the school’s policy could have absurd effects. The policy means that any Jewish group on campus would have to accept Nazi sympathizers as members, he said.

The contradiction is a byproduct of the ongoing cultural struggle taking place in this nation. It’s not surprising that the country’s highest legal authorities are being asked to examine this puzzle of constitutional protections and efforts by public institutions to prevent discrimination. That’s entirely appropriate. We appreciate the fact that we have a Supreme Court —whose justices have a variety of ideological beliefs — that is assigned to sort out exactly these kinds of difficult constitutional questions.

The case heard Monday may be complex, but some things should be evident. First, there is a difference between a group that excludes people solely on the basis of race or gender, and those who limit members to people who share their core religious beliefs.

Second, efforts to prevent discrimination have just the opposite effect if they go so far as to require Jewish groups to accept Nazis as members. And religious groups shouldn’t have to accept people who are overtly hostile to their beliefs simply because they want to participate in campus life.


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