Jason Poling: Free to believe, you but not me?
On Monday morning the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case that has the potential to set tremendously important precedents for the exercise of First Amendment rights. Or for the protection of people from discriminatory treatment. It depends how you see it.
In a nutshell, the situation is this: A Christian student group at Hastings, a law school in the University of California system, was denied recognition because it requires that members sign a statement of faith and abstain from "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle." Without recognition, the group was treated like any other non-campus group: No preferential scheduling of meeting spaces, no access to campus-wide email, no access to student organization bulletin boards, no (modest) allocation for expenses.
So, they sued. (Remember, these are law students. Really, what better way to make use of an expensive education than a test case that would ultimately go to the Supreme Court?) The students claimed the school was infringing on their right to free association (and exercise of religion); the school claimed the students could only constitute as a student group if it followed the school's non-discrimination policy, which the organization's by-laws transgressed.
It's a difficult choice: Should a publicly funded institution provide support to an organization that operates against its principles? Should an organization be required to compromise its principles in order to function as a recognized student group? Do we really want to live in a world where the Folk Music Society can’t kick out its treasurer for being photographed in the front row at a Black-Eyed Peas concert?
Let me put it this way: Would it be a valuable thing to have an academic environment where students and faculty are free to associate around shared beliefs, and where the campus operates according to the principle that diversity of opinions and practices is a good thing? Is there a sense in which what taxpayers “buy” in our institutions of public education is a learning environment which, like a guitar string, is useless without some tension?
Students who want to advocate for, say, open marriage, would be free at Hastings to start an organization celebrating, advocating and engaging in the practice. Why can’t a group of students holding a different set of values affiliate accordingly? In truth, the latter group would face far greater discrimination on virtually any law school campus today. Shouldn’t a free society bend over backwards to ensure that less popular views have an opportunity to be aired?