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Focus on Regulation

Supreme Court Declines to Review Appeal by Christian Student Groups

On March 19, the Supreme Court announced, without comment, that it would not hear an appeal from two religious student groups challenging San Diego State University’s decision not to grant official recognition to the groups. In Alpha Delta Chi-Delta Chapter v. Reed, the student groups had argued that the university violated their First Amendment rights by not officially recognizing them. Official recognition entails access to various on-campus benefits, including free meeting space, publicity in student publication, and permissible use of the university logo. The two groups—a fraternity and a sorority with Christian ties—limit their membership to only those students who affirm their own Christian beliefs. By declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court effectively lets stand an August 2011 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which upheld the California State University system’s policy that prohibits such membership restrictions.

The Ninth Circuit ruling, a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, had been described as the first major decision to rely on the Supreme Court’s June 2010 ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected claims by the Christian Legal Society at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law that the law school had violated the First Amendment rights of students by denying official recognition and financial support to groups that barred gay students from joining.

The ruling in Christian Legal Society focused on a type of policy often referred to as an “accept all comers” rule, which requires any student group seeking official recognition to accept anyone who wishes to join. The policy in effect at San Diego State University, however, was somewhat different; it prohibited membership restrictions on specific bases, such as race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. The plaintiffs claimed that the policy allowed for “secular belief-based discrimination while prohibiting religious belief-based discrimination”, according to the Ninth Circuit’s summary of their argument. But the appeals court found no evidence that the school had created the policy to suppress viewpoints. The university was not requiring the Christian groups to accept non-Christian members, the court said; it was only setting conditions for recognition as an official student group.