The Court Looks at Freedom of Association

On Monday morning the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case that illustrates clearly how modern American anti-discrimination law can be used to undermine basic human rights. The case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, arose after the Hastings College of Law, a large public law school in San Francisco, denied CLS the same recognition and support it granted to some 60 other student organizations on the ground that CLS, contrary to the Hastings nondiscrimination policy, discriminates by requiring that its members and officers abide by certain key tenets of the Christian faith. In a word, in the name of anti-discrimination, Hastings, a government institution, is discriminating against CLS, which is simply exercising its speech, religious, and associational rights.

Cato filed an amicus brief in the case, written by Richard A. Epstein, professor of law at the University of Chicago. To barely summarize our argument, freedom is at the core of the American vision, including freedom of private association. But association has two sides: the right to associate with willing others; and the right not to associate with others, for whatever reason, which amounts to the right to discriminate. Public institutions, by contrast, belong to all of us, so they may discriminate only for reasons closely connected to their missions. Since individuals will associate only if they think themselves better off by doing so, social welfare is improved when government protects private rights of association while itself studiously avoiding discrimination.

Our history in this area has been uneven, of course. Although economic association was generally protected, slavery and Jim Crow were stark exceptions, along with certain other restrictions on personal association. As Progressive Era attacks on the distinction between private and public grew, however, freedom of association in the economic sphere came to be restricted, first by regulatory and later by anti-discrimination laws. Yet in time, courts began carving out exceptions for “personal” or “intimate” association – drawing lines not nearly as bright as that between private and public.

Those decisions today constitute a body of precedents that prohibit government from directly discriminating against parties who are exercising their rights of “expressive association.” But they also protect against indirect discrimination through the imposition of “unconstitutional conditions.” Thus, Hastings cannot tell CLS, “You’re free to go elsewhere to practice your religion, but if you enter our ‘limited public forum,’ which is open to others, you’ve got to give up one or more of your constitutionally protected rights.” In other words, although Hastings doesn’t have to recognize or support any student organizations, once it opens its doors to some, it must do so for all. To do otherwise is to engage in forbidden viewpoint discrimination. Read Cato’s brief for the full story.