Monday, April 19, 2010

Special Rights

A case is being heard before the Supreme Court in which a college religious group contends that they can discriminate against a certain group of people — quick, guess which people — and still be entitled to subsidies and support by the college.

Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco has for 20 years had what it calls an all-comers policy. Any student group is entitled to official school recognition, as long as the group accepts all comers. Official recognition entitles the group to a small subsidy, preferred use of campus facilities, use of all campus bulletin boards and e-mails and use of the school logo.

The Christian Legal Society has long had a Hastings chapter that was recognized as a registered student organization, but in 2004, the group affiliated with the national Christian Legal Society and changed its policy to exclude from membership homosexuals and those who advocate or participate in pre-marital sex.

“When we did that, the director of student services said that the statement of faith in our bylaws violated their rules against discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation,” says Isaac Fong, a former chairman of the campus Christian Legal Society.

“In practice, this meant that CLS was rendered invisible on campus,” Fong adds. “CLS was denied the ability to communicate with students or to have a physical presence on campus, and that caused the members of CLS to diminish to the point that there are only a few students left now.”

The law school counters that the Christian Legal Society’s membership actually doubled in the year after it was denied official status, that the group held meetings on campus, organized a lecture and held banquets.

Indeed, CLS did stipulate in court that the school does have an all-comers policy. So, the core of Monday’s case is whether religious beliefs can trump a neutral school policy that applies equally to everyone. “All student groups are required to abide by our nondiscrimination policy,” says law school Dean Leo Martinez. “And we are not forcing any particular group or any person to accept that as their belief. However, they’re simply not entitled to state or public funding.”

But Stanford law professor Michael McConnell, representing the Christian Legal Society, says the CLS policy is not discriminatory.

“Not in the sense of being an invidiously discriminatory policy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with groups of Americans gathering together around shared beliefs,” McConnell says. “It’s OK for feminists to have a feminist club. It’s OK for environmentalists to have an environmentalists club, and it’s OK for Christians to have a Christian club. That isn’t discrimination. It’s freedom of association.”

First, I don’t buy the implication that a feminist club is exclusive. After all, a lot of men, including myself, consider themselves to be feminists, and I doubt that the Hastings College feminist club — if there is such a group — would automatically exclude men from their membership. I also assume that since feminism is a conscious choice, people who are not feminists could join the club to learn about it, not undermine its goals by their mere presence. On the other hand, nobody chooses to be gay, so discrimination against someone on those grounds is inherently unfair. Second, the assumption that you can’t be a Christian and be gay is, at least to me, an affront to both Christianity as I understand it and any number of gay people that I know who are staunchly Christian.

The Christian Legal Society is basically asking the Supreme Court for the right to discriminate against people in contravention of the school’s all-comer policy. And since the typical anti-gay argument against gay rights is that we’re asking for “special rights” — such as the right to get married, to adopt children, and to be entitled to the same marriage benefits as all the straight couples out there — it’s more than a little ironic that the CLS is making the argument for special rights for themselves.