On April 19, 2010, the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are scheduled to hear arguments in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. InterVarsity is among a large number of organizations who have filed 34 amicus (friend of the court) briefs in this case. The justices’ decision will have a major impact on campus ministry.
Courts in Conflict
The U.S. Supreme Court often decides to hear an appeal when two different circuits of the federal appeals courts render conflicting opinions. That is what has happened with cases brought by the Christian Legal Society (CLS) in the Seventh Circuit in the midwest and the Ninth Circuit on the west coast. CLS works closely with InterVarsity on law school campuses across the country. Mike Schutt, CLS’s director of Law Student Ministries, also serves as coordinator of InterVarsity’s Professional School Ministries to Law Students.
In July of 2006, the Seventh Circuit appellate judges ordered Southern Illinois University (SIU) to reinstate the CLS chapter. SIU officials had claimed that the CLS chapter’s requirement to have its voting members and leaders adhere to basic Christian beliefs violated the university’s nondiscrimination policy. In March of 2009, the Ninth Circuit appellate judges affirmed a federal district court opinion involving the University of California—Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. The district judge had ruled that school officials were permitted to deny recognition to CLS because the chapter requires its officers and voting members to adhere to the CLS Statement of Faith, which is seen as a violation of the religion and sexual orientation portions of the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
A Familiar Issue
The issues in these two cases are identical to the issues that led InterVarsity to file suit against the University of Wisconsin—Superior in federal court in 2006. InterVarsity’s right to require that the leaders of our campus chapters affirm the basic Christian doctrines of our Statement of Beliefs is frequently being questioned on a number of other campuses.
“It’s happening a lot more frequently than I expected, given the state of the law,” said InterVarsity’s legal counsel, Mike Anderson. “Even in the Seventh Circuit, we continue to have to deal with school administrators who are not familiar with the law of this Circuit. These cases are usually resolved quickly and amicably once we remind them of what the law requires, but this resistance still burdens our ability to do ministry.”
Schools in the Ninth Circuit are entitled to design their policies consistent with the law in that Circuit. In fact some ministries, such as Every Nation Campus Ministries at San Diego State University, have already been restricted in their work on campus. With the law in the Seventh Circuit in conflict with the law in the Ninth Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted CLS’s petition for certiorari. Oral arguments are expected in April, with a decision possible as early as this summer.
An Experienced Advocate
The lead attorney for CLS is Michael McConnell, who argued the case of Rosenberger v. University of Virginia in 1995. The Rosenberger case found that a state-run university could not withhold financial support from a student publication with a religious perspective when the university funded other student publications. Since 1995 McConnell has served as a Judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and is now director of the Stanford University Constitutional Law Center.
CLS provides a dialogue of questions and answers about the Martinez case on its website. Their brief was filed last week and is posted online.. The ruling in this case will impact every chapter of CLS, every chapter of InterVarsity, and every other Christian campus ministry. That’s why 17 other organizations and 13 state attorneys general have urged the justices to make a ruling that protects the rights of religious groups to set their own membership and leadership requirements. The ruling will either allow these groups to operate the same as all other campus organizations, or it will allow state colleges and universities to deny recognition to Christian groups on their campuses.
More than 80 organizations and 14 states have filed a total of 22 amicus briefs in support of the Christian Legal Society. Eleven briefs have been filed in support of the other side. One brief supports neither side. You can read the briefs on this American Bar Association web page. Please encourage prayers for the Supreme Court to render a decision that will not limit campus ministry.