This story was originally published on Jan. 19, 2010.
Issues of discrimination and freedom of expression, like those evoked by last spring’s Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship controversy, are not uncommon on college campuses. The Supreme Court agreed on Dec. 7 to hear Christian Legal Society (CLS) v. Martinez, a case that will decide whether a public law school may deny funding to a faith-based organization that shapes its voting membership around a set of core religious beliefs.
Several years ago CLS issued a statement that it would no longer accept members who "hold beliefs and engage in conduct contrary to the CLS statement of faith," according to CLS. CLS maintained that those members who engaged in homosexual activity or condoned homosexual behavior were in disagreement with the group's beliefs.
UC Hastings College of the Law revoked the organization’s official student group status — meaning the group would receive no university money, could no longer reserve rooms for meetings and could not advertise on the school website — to uphold the college’s policy barring discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation" in all recognized programs.
CLS claims in the case, which is disputing the University's decision to strip the group's funding, that it's core beliefs are not being acknowledged. Gay and lesbian students at Hastings are concerned with discrimination based on sexual orientation. The case boils down to each side's beliefs about the nature of sexuality.
The Cornell Student Activities Office's contract for Independent Organizations contains a non-discrimination clause similar to Hastings's policy.
The clause states: “The IO shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, disability, gender, citizenship, sexual orientation, or age when determining its membership.”
Last April the Student Assembly Finance Commission temporarily suspended funding to Chi Alpha when Chris Donohoe ’09 was asked to step down from his leadership position after he told the group that he had accepted his homosexuality. Funding was later restored to the group, but the issue is still a topic of debate on campus.
Chi Alpha maintains that Donohoe was not asked to step down because of his sexual orientation, but rather because of a basic disagreement with the group’s beliefs.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group focused on civil liberties in higher education, the group should have the right to construct its membership to reflect its message.
“It doesn’t matter if one agrees with or strongly disagrees with Chi Alpha or CLS’s views — it deals with the right of these groups to voice their message on campus,” Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, said. “What’s to gain by requiring a group, a faith-based group, to break with the tenets of its faith to acknowledge students who disagree with the fundamental values of that group’s faith?”
“[Membership] choices are based not on a person’s status as a member of the LGBT community but rather their views about that status,” Creeley said. “It’s a fine distinction but an important one. Groups have a right to engage with members of like mind.”
According to Donohoe, he was not asked to step down because of his values.
“I agree that the freedom of association allows an organization to select leaders who adhere to the values of the group,” Donohoe stated in an email. “This case is different, however, because I was not the only one who held a dissenting belief [that homosexuality is not morally wrong]. Yet … I was the only one forced to step down … I was not singled out because of my beliefs or my actions, but simply because of who I am. It is hard to think of a more discriminatory motive.”
“I never broke any of the established rules of [Chi Alpha],” Donohoe stated.
Donohoe signed a leadership contract containing specific provisions, like premarital sex or consumption of alcohol, which members would refrain from while serving as leaders. Homosexuality was not a condition of the contract. The University asked Chi Alpha to clarify this contact and include more specific guidelines for leadership in order to prevent similar situations in the future.
Though the Court’s decision in Martinez will not legally bind a private institution like Cornell, the ruling may provide a new frame of reference to deal with issues of discrimination and expression.
“I think that [the case] presents a great opportunity for the Court to clarify the protections offered to freedom of speech and association on public university campuses by the First Amendment,” John Cetta ’10, student representative to the University Assembly, stated in an e-mail. “The attention that the case will bring to the issue will hopefully provide guiding authority to the principles of free speech and free association: principles that Cornell claims to — and ought to — follow.”
According to Creeley, a ruling in favor of Martinez could give the SAFC a powerful argument for revoking funding if last spring’s Chi Alpha controversy were to arise again.
"Cornell has no problem recognizing religious groups, but several members of the Assembly, including myself, have a big problem with funding organizations that refuse to treat students equally," Andrew Brokman ’11, student representative to the U.A., said.
Regardless of how the court rules, each issue of expression or discrimination is unique to the parties at hand.
“Just because the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land doesn’t give it a monopoly on the truth,” Creeley said.
He cited the 2006 case, Morse v. Frederick, in which a high school student was suspended for unfurling a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” outside of school grounds. According to Creeley, this decision infringed upon the student’s right to free speech.
The Court will rule on Martinez by early summer of this year.
“I hope that the Supreme Court takes this opportunity to protect the freedom of universities to reject discrimination and encourage equality on their campuses,” Donohoe stated. “It is sadly ironic that some religious groups zealously guard their own freedoms while simultaneously seeking to deny others the same protections. Only when the rights of the LGBT community are recognized with the same vigor and tenacity will we truly honor our country's guarantee of freedom for all.”
Creeley cautioned against the overreaching effects of barring discrimination in student group membership.
“The impact of this decision won’t just sound with regards to faith-based student groups but whether or not that decision about group membership will eventually come to the floor with strictly political or strictly activist groups,” Creeley said. “Once you say a group cannot discriminate on the basis of beliefs you open up a Pandora’s box.”
Updated January 19th with additional information about the history of the CLS v. Martinez case.