Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Freedom to Associate and Pluralism

The latest salvo in the endless saga of church/state relations here in the You Ess of Ay will be coming before the Supreme Court in the nearish future. The court case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, and revolves around the refusal of the Hastings College of Law to officially recognize a conservative Christian legal association.

It's a fuddler of a case. The college is a public institution in California, and specifically refuses to provide support for groups that discriminate on the basis of religious belief, sexual orientation, race, or disability. The Christian Legal Society clearly runs afoul of that standard.

It isn't generically Christian, meaning, it's not open to all Jesus people. Their expectation of their membership is that of any fundamentalist Christian parachurch organization. On their national website, they clearly indicate that they will accept as members only a particular sort of Christian. Profession of faith in Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior just doesn't cut it. Meaning, I wouldn't be welcome. And it's not just my openness to gays and lesbians, or my understanding of the authentic Christian approach to heterosexual behavior. My interpretation of the Christian walk would directly threaten their worldview.

But while I personally find the CLS a wee bit on the Pharisaic side, I can't quite see why they should be refused status based on the exclusivity of their membership expectation. Groups are often defined by a particular governing ethic, and that ethic may come into conflict with the ethics of other groups. Let's look at other groups at Hastings College of Law.

What of the Clara Foltz Feminist Association? They exist to give a forum to individuals with a feminist worldview, and to encourage the spread of that worldview at Hastings. Would a conservative Muslim woman be admitted into membership? And even if they were, would they experience discrimination within the group?

What if a group of Jews for Jesus decided they'd been called by God to reach out to the Hastings Jewish Law Students Association? What if they showed up, day after day, using the meetings to prosthelytize? Could the Jewish Law Students deny membership to the Jews for Jesus? They'd be justified in trying.

Or what if a group of lawyers promoting "gay conversion" decided to take over the membership of Hastings OUTLAW, standing on their religious beliefs and declaring that removing them would constitute a violation of the school's anti-discrimination policies? How would the LGBTQ community at Hastings respond? Would they be entitled to defend the integrity of their organization?

Groups that are organized around a particular set of beliefs...not just faith, but beliefs generally...inherently discriminate. That's the nature of interest-based association. In a pluralistic setting, that will mean that groups may have sets of values that are in competition with one another.

So...what are the bounds of pluralism here?