“What do I do with this case?” asked Justice Breyer in the final minutes of oral argument Monday morning in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez [pdf].

Justice Breyer’s question underscored the apparent confusion regarding what exactly was being challenged in the Christian Legal Society’s case against Hastings College of the Law. Despite the acknowledged importance of the constitutional question – whether and to what extent a public school may require officially recognized student groups to adhere to a non-discrimination policy even if that policy conflicts with a religious organization’s religious beliefs – this confusion may actually discourage the Court from answering the issue directly, in favor of remanding to the lower courts in order to develop a clear factual record.

When argument commenced, the Court almost immediately sought to identify just what it was being asked to decide. 

  • Was it the constitutionality of the “written policy” (the school’s  non-discrimination policy) or
  • The “all-comers policy” (the condition that a registered student organization’s bylaws must provide that its membership is open to all students”)?
  • Justice Scalia postulated that “the all-comers policy [is] broader than the non-discrimination policy, so that if you comply with that, you automatically comply with everything in the non-discrimination clause.” CLS counsel, Stanford Law Professor Michael McConnell, argued that both are unconstitutional.

Moreover, were the policies being enforced evenly by Hastings on all student groups, or just against CLS?  Justice Kennedy noted the parties did not agree on what case was before the Court. Counsel for Hastings, Gregory Garre, agreed that if the factual record showed the policy was not evenly applied to all groups, the policy would be unconstitutional. Kennedy appeared to concur: “It’s a much different case if Hastings treats the CLS differently than it treats the Democratic and Republican Club.” But given the newly emergent disagreement regarding the facts – i.e. whether the law school’s policies and requirements for registered student organizations were in fact being applied even-handedly – Justice Kennedy stated his concern that “it’s frustrating for us not to know what kind of case we have in front of us.”

Justice Breyer expressed perhaps the strongest frustration, saying: “I have an absolute void in this record, which in turn I think would be important to fill.” He continued: “where I feel I need more facts and I don’t have them . . . what should I do?” Even Mr. Garre conceded the presence of a new dispute: “This case was litigated based on stipulations to avoid precisely these factual issues that we are now talking about for this first time before this Court.” 

Nevertheless, the Court pressed on, attempting to reach the core constitutional question. And a large part of questioning was directed at what could be labeled the “take over problem”: the CLS’s objection to “being run by non-Christians” if it were forced to allow enrollment of members and officers who do not share the group’s core beliefs.  

At one point, Justice Alito asked Hastings’ counsel: “suppose at a particular campus there is a great deal of anti-Muslim animus. And there is a small Muslim group; it has ten students. If the group is required to accept anybody who applies for membership, and 50 students who hate Muslims show up and they want to take over that group, you say: First Amendment allows that?” Mr. Garre parried, saying “this example has never happened at Hastings in 20 years.” 

Garre insisted that “[g]roups can take measures to prevent [such a ‘takeover’].” But Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito pressed Garre. Justice Alito demanded to know what recourse an organization would have if such a “hostile takeover” were to actually take place. Garre suggested that “the members would rejoin and form another group,” to which Justice Alito quipped: “if hostile members take over, former members of CLS can form CLS2?” drawing laughter from the gallery.

In contrast, Justice Ginsburg had earlier pointed out that “all the hypotheticals about sabotage, takeover, they haven’t happened.” Justice Kennedy expressed a similar pragmatic view: “Why doesn’t this just all work out? If the Christian Legal Society has these beliefs, I am not so sure why people that don’t agree with them want to belong to them. What . . . doesn’t this all just work out?” This viewpoint would put these two Justices at odds with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, who seemed unwilling to resolve the issue by resorting to the conclusion that the feared “take over situation” is unrealistic.

Regarding what type of membership discrimination would be permissible, each advocate tried to draw a distinction. Faced with questions about whether a student organization could exclude members because of their race or gender, counsel for CLS distinguished between discrimination based on a potential member’s “status” and discrimination based on a potential member’s “belief” in the organization’s tenets. Mr. McConnell argued that an organization may permissibly condition membership on the latter, but not on the former.

And Hastings’ counsel conceded that an organization may permissibly create “merit” requirements for membership and officer positions within the organization, such as “pass[ing] a test on the Bible” if such a test “were truly an objective knowledge test.” To which the Chief Justice countered: “I assume there are groups that think subscribing to their beliefs is evidence of merit, particularly religious groups. So how can you have a test that allows distinctions based on merit but not beliefs?” At one point the law school seemingly pled the position that by adopting its non-discrimination policies it was merely taking a position of ultimate neutrality: “Hastings isn’t in the business of second-guessing the beliefs of individual groups.” 

Reading the proverbial tea leaves is always an exercise in speculation. Justices Scalia and Alito, along with the Chief Justice, appeared more sympathetic to CLS’ position, while Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kennedy appeared to favor the arguments of Hastings. Both Breyer and Kennedy expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the record and confusion about just what issue was before the Court.  This case may turn out to be a tempest in a teapot.