Freedom of Association at Public Universities

Golden Gate bridge in the fogStanford law professor Michael McConnell recently represented the Christian Legal Society (CLS) in their case against San Francisco’s UC Hastings College of The Law before the U. S. Supreme Court. The CLS lost that case on a 5-4 vote (read the ruling). I’ve asked Professor McConnell to answer a few questions about the ruling, and he has graciously agreed to do so and to allow me to publish his answers online.

Q: The court ruled 5-4 in favor of UC Hastings “all-comers” policy. Was this a broad ruling affecting Christian groups at public universities generally or a relatively narrow ruling?

A: It was the most narrow ruling possible. The all-comers policy on which the Court ruled is exceedingly unusual. The Court declined to rule on the more typical situation, where the school applies religious nondiscrimination rules to religious organizations, thus denying to religious groups the freedom enjoyed by most expressive organizations of choosing their own leaders. The Court did not even rule on the all-comers policy as actually applied at Hastings, but only on an abstract and hypothetical version that applies across the board to all organizations.

Q: So let’s say I’m a Chi Alpha or an Intervarsity director at some public university. Should I be discouraged or alarmed?

A: You should be concerned, and try to work with your university to prevent infringements on your rights, because the Court’s decision provides no help to you.

Q: Did any parts of the ruling surprise you?

A: In the course of rejecting CLS’s argument, the Court gave a surprisingly narrow interpretation to free speech (public forum) precedents that I thought were firmly established law.

Q: You have no doubt read many blog posts, op-eds and news articles summarizing both the case and the court’s decision. Are there any misunderstandings you would like to correct?

A: Too many to list.

In case you’re wondering, this case only affects public universities. Our ministry at Stanford won’t be directly affected.

You can read lots of summaries of the verdict. A few of the more interesting ones: