The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday that a public law school can deny recognition to a Christian student group requiring members to affirm a set of religious beliefs could have serious ramifications for Orthodox Jewish groups, according to attorneys for Agudath Israel of America.
In its 5-4 ruling, the Court rejected an appeal of a lower court decision by the Christian Legal Society, a Christian student group at a state-run law school in California that was informed by school administrators that it cannot be considered a recognized student organization if it continues to restrict membership to declared Christians only. The majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, upheld lower court rulings that the Christian group’s First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise of religion were not violated by the college’s decision.
A number of Orthodox Jewish groups – including Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel – had submitted friend of the court briefs in support of the Christian Legal Society, despite the fact that their constituents would not be allowed membership in the Christian group. The Orthodox groups forcefully defended the right of religious groups to “discriminate” on the basis of their deeply held religious beliefs.
While the Orthodox groups’ argument did not carry the day, they did attract notice. Most notably, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito referenced Agudath Israel’s brief twice, once in the context of pointing out that many religious groups restrict membership to people sharing the group’s faith; and a second time in an expression of concern that the ruling of the majority would, in the Agudath Israel brief’s quoted words, “point a judicial dagger at the heart of the Orthodox community in the United States” and allow that community to be relegated to the status of “a second-class group.” Justice Alito called the decision a “serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.”
Providing some solace for religious groups, though, is the fact that the ruling is a narrow one, relating only to state-run universities, and only to those that have a policy requiring student groups to accept “all comers.” More common on university campuses and in other contexts are nondiscrimination policies that seek to protect specific groups of people. The issue of whether the Court would consider such more specific policies as trumping the religious rights of a group was not addressed in the recent ruling.
Says Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president: “Without question, the Court’s decision is a serious setback for religious freedom. We are hopeful, however, that this decision will not lead government and government-supported institutions to take steps to relegate those who hold traditional religious beliefs to ‘second class status’ and deny them benefits and opportunities because of their adherence to their faith.”
The Agudath leader thanked attorneys Jeffrey Zuckerman, Dora Straus, and Julie Arkush of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP for drafting the amicus brief submitted by Agudath Israel. “We are pleased that their fine and eloquent work was recognized and cited in the dissenting opinion, and thank them for a job very well done.”