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Supreme Court: Universities Free to Deny Recognition to Discriminating Groups

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 5-4 decision yesterday that public universities can deny recognition and funding to student groups that bar gays from joining. According to the court, the First Amendment does not obligate a public university to validate or support groups’ “discriminatory practices.”

The Associated Press reports that the court denied an appeal from the Christian Legal Society (CLS), an organization seeking funding from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. The CLS insisted members sign an oath stating that supporting a "sexually immoral lifestyle" is not consistent with Christianity.

The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, began back in 2004 when CLS was denied recognition by Hastings’ because of its discriminatory policy. The San Francisco-based school has an existing policy that does not permit campus groups to exclude members based on sexual orientation.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion for the court, joined by the three other liberal justices and moderate Anthony Kennedy. She wrote that Hastings “did not transgress constitution limitations,” adding, “CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy.”

Justice John Paul Stevens–whose potential replacement, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, began her Senate confirmation hearings today–offered a harsher condemnation of the group’s practices:

Other groups may exclude or mistreat Jews, blacks and women or those who do not share their contempt for Jews, blacks and women. A free society must tolerate such groups. It need not subsidize them, give them its official imprimatur, or grant them equal access to law school facilities.

The case sets a clear precedent for groups at public universities: discriminate against any protected group, and the school is free to deny recognition and funding. In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito called the decision “a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country."

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