Religion on the campus, free speech and academic freedom

There is a case, Christian Legal Society Chapter v. Martinez, that is working its way through the American legal system and that could become an important landmark decision for higher education. The background is this: the Hastings College of Law, which is part of the University of California and is based in San Francisco, has a policy of not funding student societies that have discriminatory policies or practices. The Christian Legal Society, one of the campus student associations, does not admit gay people to membership, thus violating the College’s policy of not discriminating on the grounds of sexual orientation, and it was therefore denied recognition and funding; it brought a case against the College, and this has now proceeded to the Supreme Court.

In a nutshell, the Society is arguing that as a religious society it should be free to argue for and to apply its own religious principles, and that being forced to admit gay members would violate its strongly held beliefs. The case unsurprisingly raises various issues of freedom of speech and of religion, and whether it is reasonable for an association to require its members to adopt its principles; and whether prohibiting them from doing this would compromise their right to hold, and develop these principles. The College is arguing that student societies provide part of the educational experience, and that it is reasonable for the College to ensure that these operate in a way that respects and applies its key principles. It has received some backing from the American Council on Education, which has suggested that the College’s policy is in part a matter of ‘educational judgement’ and should thus be protected under the heading of academic freedom.

A university campus is a complex place where tolerance often has to compete with dogma, and where basic rights struggle to find a place on either side of such arguments. Maintaining a balance between principle and freedom is never easy, and when academic freedom is thrown into the mix it becomes impossibly complex, not least because it can easily be conscripted into the argument on either side. In fact, both sides of this argument are finding themselves in unexpected company: the Society has received backing from civil liberties groups and even gay rights groups (who argue that their own right to maintain gay-only associations is an important support for gay people), while the College has the backing of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

The US Supreme Court will find itself walking around in a minefield; it will be interesting to see how it copes.

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4 Comments on “Religion on the campus, free speech and academic freedom”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    One is tempted to ask does this society also exclude fornicators, swearers [damn, thats me out], idlers [me, again], hypocrites & assorted other sinners?
    My view is that if people want to form exclusive groups thats their business but they should not get public subsidies. But then presumably the Chess Club excludes non-chess players? So the argument is that some forms of exclusivity are okay & others not. Hmmm glad I’m not a Supreme Court judge, after all.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I’m with Kevin, the College IS the association and all have been included. How then can an off shoot decide what is/will be policy. Quite honestly I would have way more difficulty with the Institution putting finance into the club. Odd all the same, the Christian Group do not seem to have an issue with accepting a percentage of the Gay dime. On the Chess Club -why Club, Society surely- they do not say you could never join as you could learn.
    What sickens me about our own Sports Clubs is the constructive exclusion of all those that did not attend private second level and do Archery or the like.

  3. John Says:

    One of the best ways to “develop” your principles is to have them opposed.

    Anyway – what a principle! I suppose they will justify this discrimination by invoking an infallible invisible authority in the usual way.

    But homosexuals have demonstrated they are as capable of bowing and scraping to invisible authority and of forfeiting reason to superstition (surely the chief characteristic of the religious) as anyone else.

    So I say this is unfair discrimination and they should be admitted – on the grounds of logic if nothing else.

    • Jilly Says:

      I completely agree. I feel about this the way I do about women in the military or indeed gay marriage: I haven’t the foggiest notion why they want to engage with these institutions, but they are completely entitled to do so if they wish.

      I seem to recall DCU having its own bit of bother in this regard about a decade ago, with a very exclusionary religious organisation which shall remain nameless recruiting on campus. As I remember, the students objected and got them removed. But I think that was possible because they hadn’t properly registered themselves as a college society.


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