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UPDATED: Court to rule on student religious rights

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether it is unconstitutional for a state-run college to exclude from official status a student religious group that limits its officers and voting members to those who accept its religious beliefs.  The case involves a student group at a public law school, Hastings, in San Francisco. The case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (08-1371).

The Court also granted a second case — Dillon v. U.S. (09-6338). That case tests whether the federal Sentencing Guidelines are binding when a federal judge imposes a new sentence.  The case will test whether the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in U.S. v. Booker, making the Guidelines advisory only, applies in a sentence modification proceeding.  Review was granted even though the Court had previously refused to hear the same issue in a number of cases.  The U.S. Solicitor General recommended a denial in this case, too.

The case has particularly important potential to affect perhaps tens of thousands of new sentencing proceedings for those convicted of dealing in crack cocaine, since the U.S. Sentencing Commission has revised downward the range of sentences for those crimes, and has made those changes retroactive.   If judges have no discretion to set a sentence below the minimum in the new range (as they are allowed to do in initial sentencing), many individuals would not be allowed to take advantage of the reductions, or would at best receive significantly less benefit.”

The Court took no action Monday on an attempt by three Indiana employee trust groups to challenge aspects of the deal that rescued the big automaker, Chrysler, after bankruptcy.  The case is Indiana State Police Pension Trust, et al., v. Chrysler LLD, et al. (09-285).

Among the cases denied review was a new attempt by a Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abdul Hamid Al=Ghizzawi, to require a federal judge to move ahead toward a ruling on the legality of his continued confinement.  He has been cleared for release, but nonetheless remains imprisoned at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. He sought an original habeas writ from the Court (in 09-7290), which was denied without comment.

In the Christian Legal Society case, the Court will be examining an issue that has divided the lower federal courts — sometimes, involving the same student group.  The Society’s petition noted that the Ninth Circuit Court ruling upholding the group’s denial of official status at Hastings Law conflicts with a Seventh Circuit decision in the Society’s favor.

In addition, the petition argued that the Ninth Circuit decision contradicts a line of cases in which the Court has upheld a private group’s right to hold its own views and so limit its own membership, and a separate line of Court rulingts requiring public universities not to discriminate in student group recognition based on the groups’ religious viewpoints.

Hastings Law, the Society told the Court, has barred only this one group from recognition, even while granting that status to student groups that limit their membership to people of shared views.  The exclusion, the petition noted, denies it access to meeting space at the Law School, access to student bulletin boards and other modes of reaching students, and access to some student funding sources.

The Ninth Circuit ruled summarily against the Society’s claim of religious bias at the law school, relying on an earlier precedent involving a Bible club’s exclusion at a high school.  The Supreme Court denied review of that Circuit precedent last June in Truth v. Kent School District (08-1130).  It is unclear whether the Court took the new case from Hastings Law on the premise that it involved college, rather than high school, students.