By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 28, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a Christian student group does not have the right to restrict its membership to practicing Christians, in a decision Christian rights groups are calling a significant blow to religious freedom.

The court decided 5-4 Monday in the case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez to uphold a California law school’s denial of official recognition of a Christian student group. The Christian group refused to agree to let non-Christians and those engaging in a "sexually immoral lifestyle" to become voting members or leaders.

The case has received national interest as the guidelines, which bar openly-practicing homosexuals from the group, came to be perceived as discrimination against homosexuals.

The majority decision, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ruled that the UC Hastings College of Law's decision was a fair application of its anti-discrimination policy. In what may set a grim precedent, the liberals on the court upheld the "rights" of non-discrimination according to sexual orientation over rights of religious freedom by comparing Christian beliefs to racist beliefs: Justice John Paul Stevens asked, "What if the belief is that African-Americans are inferior?"

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which filed an amicus brief in the case representing numerous Christian campus organizations, called the outcome an "extremely disappointing decision" that "significantly damages the constitutional rights of religious organizations."
 
"The majority of the Supreme Court missed the mark in understanding that it is fundamental to religious freedom that religious groups are free to define their own mission, select their own leaders and determine their own membership criteria," said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. 

"By permitting a discriminatory decision by the federal appeals court to stand, the Supreme Court decision represents, as Justice Alito correctly concluded in the dissent, 'a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.'  And, we, like Justice Alito, hope this decision will be an aberration and not a shift in First Amendment jurisprudence."
 
The case involved a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit siding with the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Hastings denied official recognition to a student group – the Christian Legal Society (CLS) – after CLS said it could not abide by the school’s non-discrimination policy. That policy forbids student groups from discriminating on the basis of, among other things, "religion." CLS says its religious beliefs prevent non-Christians from exercising control over the group by becoming voting members or serving in leadership positions. 
 
In a dissent written by Justice Samuel Alito, and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas, Justice Alito concluded that the majority decision "is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country."
 
"Our First Amendment reflects a 'profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,'" wrote Justice Alito, citing the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. "Even if the United States is the only Nation that shares this commitment to the same extent, I would not change our law to conform to the international norm. I fear that the Court’s decision marks a turn in that direction. Even those who find CLS’s views objectionable should be concerned about the way the group has been treated - by Hastings, the Court of Appeals, and now this Court. I can only hope that this decision will turn out to be an aberration." 
 
In its amicus brief filed at the high court, the ACLJ contended that religious groups are constitutionally protected in following their religious beliefs. 
 
"Religious groups by their nature embrace religious principles and, as a matter of organizational identity and coherence, will normally require adherence to such principles as a criterion for membership and certainly for leadership," the brief asserted.  "This is not 'discrimination' but rather part and parcel of what defines them as religious groups.  Wooden application of religious 'non-discrimination' policies therefore forces religious groups to choose between their religious identity and access to the forum.  That 'choice' is an unconstitutional one between yielding to government intermeddling and no access at all.  Far from a permissible condition on benefits, this is a choice that the government, under the Religion Clauses, has no business imposing on religious groups."