Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oral Argument in Christian Fraternity Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit heard oral argument yesterday in Beta Upsilon Chi v. Machen, a case in which the freedom of religious organizations to use religious criteria in personnel decisions is at stake. Christian Legal Society's Center for Law & Religious Freedom represents the fraternity in its civil rights lawsuit against University of Florida officials.

The dispute arose when UF withheld "registered student organization" status from Beta Upsilon Chi (also known as "Brothers Under Christ" and BYX). BYX draws its members and leaders from among those students who profess faith in Jesus Christ; the university deemed this a violation of its policy banning religious discrimination by student organizations.

UF's treatment of BYX violates the First Amendment. It infringes the right of expressive association and constitutes viewpoint discrimination. Rejecting BYX's motion for preliminary injunction, the district court disagreed. BYX appealed, and my colleague Tim Tracey presented an excellent oral argument yesterday.

The three judges on the Eleventh Circuit panel (Chief Judge Edmondson, Judge Tjoflat, and Senior Judge Hill) all expressed a large measure of skepticism towards the university's arguments. Judge Edmondson revealed his view that the university's denial of recognition undoubtedly disadvantaged BYX. The court questioned the magnitude of the university's interest in pressuring a Christian group dedicated to the inculcation of Christian principles to admit non-Christian members.

Of course, the tenor of an oral arguments does not always predict the outcome of a case. Nonetheless, most observers (including me) of yesterday's argument would not be surprised if the appellate panel ruled in BYX's favor.