The Center for Law & Religious Freedom

Christian Legal Society v. Russell (University of Montana School of Law)

Religious student groups have a right to meet on campus and use campus channels of communication to express their religious viewpoints to other students. The Supreme Court has also held that universities may not engage in viewpoint discrimination in allocating student activity fee funds to student groups on campus.

Recently, however, some universities have begun to claim that religious groups may be excluded from campus or denied student activity fees because they require their leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. These universities claim that religious groups’ basic right to require their leaders to share their beliefs is “discrimination.” In reality, the universities are discriminating against religious groups by denying them the same right other groups have to choose their leaders according to their particular beliefs and mission.

On December 17, 2007, the Center filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the University of Montana School of Law's de-recognition of the local CLS student chapter on account of its Christian beliefs. The law school's Student Bar Association originally recognized CLS but withdrew recognition due to opposition from law students and faculty and subsequently excluded CLS from student activity funds made available to all other law student organizations.

The SBA's decision, upheld by law school Dean E. Edwin Eck, is in stark contrast to that of the main campus student government, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, which has recognized CLS.

The School of Law refused to respond to requests that it explain the basis of its decision, however, law students and faculty opposed to CLS characterized the chapter's requirement that voting members and leaders refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage as "discrimination."

While CLS requires that voting members and officers to adhere to a Statement of Faith, all are welcome to participate in meetings and events.

CLS challenges the law school's decision as a violation of CLS' First Amendment rights, including freedom of expressive association, participation in a student activity fee distribution process free of viewpoint discrimination, and free exercise of religion.

On February 8, 2008, defendants filed a motion to dismiss. On July 21, 2008, CLS filed a motion for summary judgment. On November 14, 2008, the magistrate judge assigned to this case issued his findings and recommendations regarding CLS' motion for summary judgment. In May 2010, the district court accepted the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations. CLS appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2010. On August 3, 2011, the parties signed a Settlement and Release Agreement that assured CLS the same benefits of recognition allowed other groups and reformed the law school’s system of allocating student activity fees funding.

Settlement (PDF)

Litigation Documents (PDF)

Press Releases (pdf)

News & Commentary (pdf)