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K12 Groups Protect Open Membership Policies

Group hopes to uphold the right of a public school to deny recognition to a student organization that does not comply with the school's open membership policies.
The case between the Christian Legal Society and the UC Hastings College of Law went before the Supreme Court April 19.

On March 15, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) and three other education organizations each filed amicus curiae briefs with a Supreme Court case that discusses the right of a public school to deny recognition to a student organization that does not comply with the school's open membership policies. An amicus curiae brief, or "friend of the court" brief, is a document volunteered by an outside party that contains additional information on an aspect of the case to assist in its ruling.

Christian Legal Society of the University of California Hastings College of Law v. Martinez involves the Christian Legal Society (CL S), a nationwide organization of Christian lawyers and law students, and the University of California Hastings College of Law, a public institution. In 2004, Hastings' CL S chapter rewrote their bylaws banning potential members who were homosexual or did not agree with the CLS Statement of Faith. The college argued that public dollars couldn't support a student group, such as CL S, without an open membership policy, and CL S filed suit against the college stating the college violated its First Amendment rights.

NSBA and the others that filed briefs, including the School Social Work Association of America, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the California School Boards Association, believe the case has the potential to impact public schools if the ruling declares no institutions can apply nondiscrimination policies.

The precedent set is the 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a student's First Amendment rights of freedom of speech were protected within a school.

"The Supreme Court has said students don't leave their rights at the schoolhouse door," says Francisco Negran, general counsel at NSBA. "But, it has also said the school setting is special. Those rights are to be balanced by the mission of the school to educate. Nondiscrimination policies ultimately empower the school to teach children and make sure all children are learning in a safe environment."

The organizations hold firm that open membership policies for extracurricular activities are critical for a student's academic achievement, as well as the socialization that develops from their involvement.

"Schools are teaching kids cultural values, fairness and integrity," says Nick Flanery, senior director for leadership, program and services at NASSP. "We have a responsibility to prepare kids to become citizens in this world."

The district court rejected CLS's claims and ruled in favor of Leo Martinez, acting chancellor and dean of UC Hastings College of Law, as did the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California in 2009. On May 5, 2009, CLS filed a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking a reversal of the Ninth Circuit's decision against CL S. Oral arguments for the Supreme Court case began April 19. NSBA and its allies hope to see the court narrow its ruling so as not to impact public school districts.