SALT LAKE CITY — The 16 University of Utah students stood for a prayer, then settled into chairs around the long table that dominated the room in the campus hangout known simply as the Union.

The Valentine's Day meeting of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship had an obvious holiday-related theme: Dating and relationships based on their religious beliefs. The guest speaker, attorney Jeannine Timothy, talked to the young Christians about the church's views on premarital sex and how lack of commitment leads to failed relationships.

Timothy steadily made the case that romantic love is as much a conscious decision as it is a feeling.

"I personally got a lot out of it," said Mike Sergakis, an accounting major from Sandy. "It was really interesting to see how my relationships stack up against what we were talking about."

Like many universities around the nation, the U. accommodates campus religious and spiritual groups, listing 14 of them on the student wellness section of its website — from Jews to Muslims and Christians to Pagans. But campus allowances for and recognition of religious groups face a stiff challenge that will be argued Monday before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Religion in the crosshairs

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez reaches the Supreme Court more than five years after it began. At the heart of the case is the question of whether a public university (the University of California Hastings College of Law, a prestigious public law school in San Francisco) can exclude a religious student organization — the Christian Legal Society — from official recognition by the school solely because the society requires students to share the group's core religious beliefs to be full voting members. "Martinez" is part of the case name because Leo P. Martinez, the acting chancellor and dean of Hastings, is the first person named in the lawsuit filed by the society.

Former U. law professor Michael McConnell represents the society. McConnell now teaches at Stanford after seven years as a federal appellate judge.

"Obviously we're in a world of greater diversity and tolerance in many ways," McConnell said. "I think the big issue in this case from a cultural point of view is, what is that going to look like? Does that mean that no one, no group is going to be able to participate in the public square unless they share these new conceptions of diversity and tolerance? Or does it mean that everyone is welcome?"

If the Supreme Court sides with the society — the ruling will likely come down this summer — look for the status quo to continue with how the law treats religious organizations. A decision in favor of the Hastings policy, however, could start a chain reaction that could rock the foundation of religious liberties in America and move the United States a step closer to the prevalent secularism of Western Europe.

"I think that in America you can still see a cultural war or cultural clashes between the religious or conservative people and what we call liberal," said John Graz, secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association and an expert on international religious freedoms. "In Europe, you don't have that. It's no longer a clash or war; it's just strong domination of the secular side of the society. … Now, you don't like to see a religion alive. A good religion is a dying religion. And you don't like it when people speak on behalf of religion on the social issues."

Opening skirmish

Dina Haddad enrolled at Hastings in 2003. By the dawn of her second year, she owned a coveted spot on the student-run Congressional Law Quarterly and served as vice president of the Hastings Christian Fellowship.

The fellowship, one of approximately 54 registered student organizations officially recognized by the law school in 2004, had been loosely affiliated with the national Christian Legal Society umbrella for several years. However, during the 2003-04 school year, one participant in the Hastings Christian Fellowship was openly lesbian and two more held beliefs inconsistent with orthodox Christianity.

To clearly define the organization's beliefs and purpose, Haddad and two other student leaders decided the fellowship would officially affiliate with the national Christian Legal Society for the 2004-05 school year and change its name to the Hastings Christian Legal Society.

In early September 2004 Haddad asked Judy Chapman, the director of student services at Hastings, about the process necessary to register a society chapter as an official Hastings student organization. Chapman warned Haddad that national organizations such as the Christian Legal Society often have membership policies inconsistent with Hastings' nondiscrimination policy. Nevertheless, a couple of days thereafter Chapman approved a $250 travel stipend for Haddad and another Hastings student to attend the society's national convention.

On Oct. 12, Haddad received an e-mail from Chapman informing her that the $250 for travel had been withdrawn. The law school would not be recognizing a society chapter as a student organization because, per society policy, students had to "exemplify the highest standards of morality as set forth in Scripture" in order to be full voting members. This included abstinence "from all acts of sexual conduct outside of God's design for marriage between one man and one woman, which acts include fornication, adultery, and homosexual conduct." In short, Hastings viewed the provisions as an affront to gay students and a violation of its nondiscrimination policy.

Evoking Ku Klux Klan

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, heartily supports Hastings' decision to not recognize a Christian Legal Society chapter. He makes the argument that receiving funds from a public institution such as Hastings is akin to government endorsement. Thus, in his view, officially recognizing a student organization tied to a specific religious belief such as CLS would amount to a violation of First Amendment protections.

"This case is important," Lynn said, "because I think it will clarify whether religious organizations have yet another special right — in this case, to discriminate — and still receive funding from the government, which is exactly what happens at the law school.

"As long as they don't want any money and any official recognition, there's no danger. But once you start to allow a group's ideological viewpoint to trump the civil rights protections in law, I think you have created an enormous loophole and an enormous problem."

In fact, Lynn views the religious freedom question at issue in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez to be such a slippery slope that he dares draw a comparison between the organization and the Ku Klux Klan.

He said: "If a Ku Klux Klan group wanted to meet (at Hastings) and they said, 'We want to be called the Hastings Ku Klux Klan Group, and because we are a religious organization we want to discriminate against African-Americans. You have to sign a statement that says you are at least 80 percent white (to be a member).' What would be the difference, if the law says you can't discriminate?

"But here comes an entity (CLS) that says, 'We're religious, and we believe we have to discriminate as a matter of principle.' I don't think there's any getting around it. … There's literally no way I could distinguish between what's going on and something's that's based on race."

McConnell disagrees.

"The distinguishing difference (between the Christian Legal Society and the Ku Klux Klan)," McConnell said, "is that it is racist, invidiously discriminatory and wrong for people to discriminate against African-Americans; we fought a Civil War over that. It is not wrong, not invidiously discriminatory — indeed, it's constitutionally protected — for (Christians) to be able to gather together with fellow (Christians)."

In American law, the notion of nondiscrimination originated to prohibit acts such as persecution of religious observance. Thus, the possibility that a theory of nondiscrimination could be used to encroach on the free exercise of religion creates a wide philosophical disconnect for McConnell.

"It's really ironic that a prohibition on the basis of discriminating against religion is now being used in order to exclude religion from public universities," he said. "I think what Congress had in mind when they first passed a statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, [was] that religious people would be protected against exclusion. … The idea that Christian Legal Society should be kicked off campus because they require their voting members and leaders to be people who sign onto their statement of belief seems completely upside down."

The road ahead

In the event the Supreme Court rules in favor of Hastings, the first domino to fall would likely be the exclusion by public universities of religious student groups like the Christian Legal Society and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship. An attack on the tax-exempt status of churches could be next.

"If Hastings wins this litigation," McConnell said, "I would expect that many more public universities would follow Hastings' path and exclude religious groups and especially religious groups of a conservative or traditionalist theology or moral persuasion.

"Also, the constitutional theory that Hastings puts forth in the case is that when what's at issue are government benefits or subsidies, the state is free to exclude — and that would include such things as tax exemptions. I could imagine, maybe not this year but sometime in the near future, that churches with unpopular views could be denied their tax-exempt status. I think that's an implication of Hastings' argument in this case."

After several decades spent monitoring the worldwide ebb and flow of rights associated with religion, Graz, of International Religious Liberty Association, cautions that present-tense religious freedoms are no guarantee of tomorrow's religious liberty.

"In a country like the United States, religious freedom is still very much protected," he said. "But it doesn't mean that there is no problem."

Faith and academia

U. student Angela Sakellariou, secretary of the local Orthodox Christian Fellowship chapter, grew up in Salt Lake City attending the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church.

During one of the fellowship's recent Sunday Bible study meetings, her thoughts turned to former Sunday school classmates who have fallen away from their faith in early adulthood. "They don't come to church anymore because they're really busy with their college lives," Sakellariou said.

She believes the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the U. fosters peer interactions at the intersection of faith and academia.

"I think it's good for university students to have something like (the fellowship)," she said. "It's a way to stay involved as much as possible with the Orthodox church, with other youth my age who are also Orthodox. It gives us an opportunity to have something to do on-campus that is still Orthodox-related."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com