June 28, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Supreme Court makes two pro-LGBT rulings

The U.S. Supreme Court made pro-LGBT rulings in two cases during the final week of its term, which ended Monday.

Justices ruled in favor of the constitutionality of a California law school’s non-discrimination policy as well as state disclosure laws that would make public the names of those who signed a petition to put an anti-gay referendum on the Washington State ballot.

In the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the court upheld Monday in a 5-4 decision the University of California, Hastings College of Law’s non-discrimination policy against a legal challenge from a Christian group that aimed to discriminate against LGBT people.

The school’s Hastings Christian Fellowship sought to overturn a non-discrimination policy to maintain its status as an official school group while prohibiting LGBT people from holding positions as officers. The group contended the school’s policy violated the chapter’s freedom of association and speech under the First Amendment.

But U.S. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who wrote the majority opinion in the ruling — said the school’s policy is constitutional because it’s “a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the student-organization forum.”

“In requiring [Christian Legal Society] — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations,” she writes.

Joining Ginsburg in the majority opinion were Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens marked his final day on the bench by filing a concurring opinion.

While upholding Hastings’ policy, the court also remanded to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals an assertion by the Christian Legal Society that Hastings has been selectively applying its non-discrimination policy.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito filed the dissent. In his opinion, Alito writes that the Supreme Court didn’t properly address the constitutionality of Hastings’ policy and is setting precedent that could stifle free speech.

“Brushing aside inconvenient precedent, the Court arms public educational institutions with a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups,” Alito writes.

Joining Alito in the dissenting opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

In the majority opinion, Ginsburg notes as an official group, the Christian Legal Society chapter would be entitled to financial assistance from the school derived from mandatory student fees. She says current policy “ensures that no Hastings student is forced to fund a group that would reject her as a member.”

Additionally, Ginsburg emphasizes that although Hastings may exclude the Christian Legal Society chapter as an official group — or as a registered student organization — the organization still has some capacity to meet and communicate on campus.

“In this case, Hastings offered [Christian Legal Society] access to school facilities to conduct meetings and the use of chalkboards and generally available bulletin boards to advertise events,” Ginsburg writes. “Although [Christian Legal Society] could not take advantage of [certain] methods of communication … the advent of electronic media and social-networking sites reduces the importance of those channels.”

In a statement, Christopher Stoll, senior attorney for the National Center of Lesbian Rights, said the decision “affirmed the longstanding doctrine” that non-discrimination policies don’t “violate free speech when applied in a consistent and even-handed way.”

“The court rejected the dangerous argument that anti-gay groups must be given a special exemption from non-discrimination policies,” Stoll said.

NCLR was among the groups representing Outlaw, Hastings’ LGBT student group, which intervened to defend Hastings’ non-discrimination policy.

Paul Smith, who represented Outlaw, said all the respondents are “gratified” by the court’s decision said it reflects the views articulated in briefs to the court.

“The Hastings policy that all recognized and subsidized student groups have to be open to all comers is designed to … assure that educational opportunities are equally open to all, and … promote the open interchange of ideas among students,” he said.

The Hastings College of Law and the Christian Legal Society didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment.

In a separate decision June 24, the court ruled against people seeking to keep secret the names of people who last year signed a petition to put an anti-gay referendum on the Washington State ballot.

The court determined 8-1 in Doe v. Reed that public disclosure of referendum petitions doesn’t — as a general rule — violate the First Amendment rights of signers.

But the decision left room for anti-gay activists to succeed at a lower court on the more focused question of whether making public the signatures for Referendum 71 specifically runs contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the decision. The sole dissenting voice in ruling came from Thomas.

The initiative in question, Referendum 71, came before Washington State residents in 2009 and threatened to abrogate the expansion of the state’s domestic partner registry. But 53 percent of the electorate voted in favor of upholding the law, keeping the registry in place.

Concurrent with the campaign against the law, people who put the anti-gay initiative on the ballot — led by Protect Marriage Washington — challenged Washington State’s Public Records Act, which requires public disclosure of the names of petition signers who put referenda on the ballot.

The U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington issued a preliminary injunction blocking the publication of signatures, and the issue made its way to the Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs argued the law could put people who signed the petition in danger after their names became public. In defense of the statute, Washington State argued disclosure contributes to electoral integrity of the ballot process and allows the public to double-check in case a mistake is made.

Roberts affirms in the majority opinion the arguments that public disclosure promotes electoral integrity and concludes the disclosure law enables the public to find potential mistakes or instances of forgery.

“Public disclosure thus helps ensure that the only signatures counted are those that should be, and that the only referenda placed on the ballot are those that garner enough valid signatures,” he writes. “Public disclosure also promotes transparency and accountability in the electoral process to an extent other measures cannot.”

Roberts also rejects the assertion from plaintiffs that the court should overturn the disclosure law on the basis that disclosure of the names of people who signed the Referendum 71 petition would place these signers in danger.

The chief justice says the question before the court isn’t whether “disclosure violates the First Amendment with respect to those who signed the R-71 petition,” but whether this disclosure “in general violates the First Amendment rights of those who sign referendum petitions.”

“The problem for plaintiffs is that their argument rests almost entirely on the specific harm they say would attend disclosure of the information on the R-71 petition, or on similarly controversial ones,” Roberts writes.

Roberts says the court must reject this broad challenge to all disclosure laws, but says this ruling doesn’t necessarily “foreclose a litigant’s success” in a narrower challenge before the district court. The chief justice recalls how the court previously determined withholding names may be appropriate in some instances with “reasonable probability” that individuals would be harassed.

In a statement, Anne Levinson, chair of Washington Families Standing Together, which fought to maintain the state’s domestic partnership law, praised the high court’s decision.

She said the Supreme Court made clear that public disclosure laws ensure “measures are not put on the ballot by fraudulent means or mistake.”

“Nowhere is the integrity and transparency of elections more important than where the ballot box is being used in an attempt to take away fundamental rights,” she said. “Nowhere is it more important for the public to know that attempts to affect the lives of their fellow citizens by promoting ballot measures are free from fraud and error.”

But Larry Stickney, president of the Washington Values Alliance, said he’s “optimistic” anti-gay activists will be able to keep the petition names secret following action from the district court.

“Likely we’re going to be back in district court and we’ll be able to bring out some of the harassment and intimidation efforts that were made against Protect Marriage Washington,” he said. “We’re happy that that effort will carry on.”

Levinson dismissed the idea that people working on the campaign to overturn the domestic partner registry faced harassment and said there’s “absolutely no evidence of harassment” of signers.

“What the petitioners cite to by way of threats or other harassment, they talk about their campaign manager or other leadership in their campaign,” she said. “Those are the folks like me who were debating on TV or radio or leading a campaign effort, so that’s irrelevant to making any case about petition signers.”

Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said he didn’t think plaintiffs had a shot keeping the names of petitions signers under wraps in light of the “reasonable probability” standard the Supreme Court established.

“I think they are very unlikely to have any success because the standard that the Supreme Court imposed here is — in a particular case — you can only prevent disclosure if you can show a reasonable probability that disclosure will subject to threats, harassment or reprisal,” he said. “So not the possibility — not that it could happen — but a reasonable probability that it will happen.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

5 Comments
  • Ironically, the Supreme Court’s ruling in CLS v. Martinez means that gay groups will have to accept as members people who hold an anti-gay point of view.

    In fact, Outlaw, the gay organization at the Hastings School of Law, has a rule that restricts membership to students who affirm its pro-gay rights point of view. (This rule is in violation of Hastings’ “take all comers” policy.) What will Outlaw do when it faces an influx of potential members who disagree with its mission and message?

    The 1991 Supreme Court ruling in the Hurley case, which permitted an Irish group to ban gay marchers from its St. Patrick’s Day parade, has since been used as protection by gay groups whose events were threatened with infiltration by anti-gay preachers and ex-gay proselytizers.

    The opposite will be the case with today’s ruling.

    CLS v. Martinez will, I’m afraid, be used to undermine the integrity of gay and lesbian organizations by the forces of viewpoint homogenization. CLS v. Martinez is not a “pro-gay” ruling at all, unless you think that gay people should not be able to have freedom of expressive association.

  • In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. There are two issues: recognition and funding. Dollars and cents.

    SCOTUS missed the boat! They could have simply separated funding from official recognition, and required official recognition of organizations coming from all viewpoints, preserving their distinctiveness.

    When Ginsburg wrote that current policy “ensures that no Hastings student is forced to fund a group that would reject her as a member,” she made mud out of ALL current policies surrounding Student Activity Fees nationwide, and it will take many years to clear this up, in the courts.

    If I were on a college Board of Trustees, I’d vote to drop activities fees entirely, rather than try to punch my way out of this bag — in lawsuit after lawsuit.

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