Can a campus religious group deny membership to students who don’t share its beliefs?
The United States Supreme Court will take up that question later this month, in a case that could have broad implications for Hillel and other Jewish organizations at state-run colleges and universities.
As attorneys prepare for oral argument on April 19, Jewish groups that normally weigh in on the side of church-state separation are split over the controversy.
The suit was brought against the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco by the campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society.
The Christian group is seeking to overturn a requirement that student groups that receive activities fees at public universities practice non-discrimination in terms of racial, religious, and gender preference.
The society argues that its religious freedom is impaired by the school’s insistence that it grant membership to those who disagree with its views on homosexuality and premarital sex.
Such a rule forces “a religious student organization to accept officers and voting members who hold beliefs and engage in conduct in opposition to the group’s shared viewpoints, thereby inhibiting the group’s ability to define and express its message,” according to a brief it filed.
But the American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism joined in a brief supporting the nondiscrimination requirement.
Those groups, joined by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, cited a history of opportunities denied to Jews, blacks, women, and other minorities at many of the nation’s campuses.
“Especially in light of this history, it is an important component of a university’s educational mission to ensure that the student groups it recognizes and funds are open to all students,” the organizations argue in their brief.
The Anti-Defamation League also urged the court to uphold the requirement that officially recognized student organizations adhere to the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
“Taxpayer money should never be used to fund any position for which an employer could advertise ‘No Jews, No Catholics, No Muslims (or no practitioners of any other particular religion) Need Apply,’” said Robert G. Sugarman, ADL’s national chair, in a statement.
But the American Jewish Congress, which frequently supports nondiscrimination policies, is not taking sides in the dispute.
“We were split, but I have a strong view that the Christian Legal Society is plainly right here,” said Marc Stern, assistant executive director of AJCongress and codirector of its Commission on Law and Social Action.
“Some people say the government has the authority to ban discrimination,” Stern told NJ Jewish News. “But when you are talking about access to public property for speech purposes, under a rule that allows everybody to say what they want, it is purely private speech, and therefore we are free to act as we would in our own private church, restricting membership to people who share our beliefs.”
He expects the Christian Legal Society to prevail at the high court.
If that happens, “Hillel is completely free — but not required — to adopt a Jews-only policy and get university subsidies in the form of student activity fees,” said Stern.
However, if the court rules for the university, “the university can declare not only that you can’t have religious exclusion, you can’t even have an ideological exclusion.”
In that event, Stern said, “the Democrats on campus can’t insist you be a Democrat to be a member of the Democratic Club. No group can insist on adherence to its general outlook as a condition to membership or holding office.
“To me, that is an absurd position on its face.”
But those who supervise Jewish organizations on two public campuses in New Jersey are less troubled about such an outcome.
David Sanders, an associate professor of broadcasting who is faculty adviser to Hillel at Montclair State University, said student organizations, such as his, that receive funding from the Student Government Association “have to admit anybody who is interested in joining.”
“I feel pretty strongly that Hillel should be open to anybody,” he said. “There is a self-selection process. Muslim and Christian students are probably not interested in joining a Jewish organization. There is a concern that there would be a disruptive Muslim student in Hillel or vice versa, but in reality, that doesn’t really happen.”
“We don’t have members; anybody can participate,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel.
“Our university requires all student organizations to allow any member of the university to participate. We have non-Jews who come to our events and we welcome them as friends of our students.
“It is theoretically possible that non-Jews could take over Hillel — but it is not a concern whatsoever,” Getraer told NJJN.
But, he said, the nondiscrimination requirement at Hastings does, in fact, “appear to discriminate against religious organizations. The First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion. If you are required to have members who don’t belong to your religion, it is hard to exercise.”