The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a public university can refuse to officially recognize a Christian student group that bars membership to those who violate its beliefs.
In a 5-4 decision split along ideological lines, the high court agreed with a decision by the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco to refuse to grant a campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society because it expressly barred gays and non-Christians.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy, the court's frequent swing vote, agreed with the school. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas sided with the Christian group.
The school said the group's membership requirements violated the university's anti-discrimination policies, which require groups on campus to allow members regardless of sexual orientation or religion. The group claimed that the school's policies violated its First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
A federal district court and federal appeals court previously sided with the school against the Christian students.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg said the First Amendment shielded the Christian Legal Society from discrimination at the hands of the state-run university, but it did not give the Christian group the right to exclude people while receiving the benefits of the university's resources.
"Exclusion, after all, has two sides," she wrote. "Hastings, caught in the crossfire between a groups desire to exclude and students demand for equal access, may reasonably draw a line in the sand permitting all organizations to express what they wish but no group to discriminate in membership."
The conservative justices said their liberal counterparts had distorted the facts of the case and argued that the school targeted the Christian group because it disagreed with the group's beliefs.
"I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today's decision is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country," Justice Alito wrote in a dissenting opinion. "Even those who find [the Christian Legal Society's] views objectionable should be concerned about the way the group has been treated — by Hastings, the court of appeals and now this court.
"I can only hope that this decision will turn out to be an aberration."
In another widely followed case, the court declined to make a sweeping ruling that could have changed the scope of the nation's patent laws.
In that case, inventors Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw tried to patent in 1997 a business method that would allow a user to lock in favorable energy prices and hedge against price fluctuations that result from bad weather. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected their application on the basis that it was too abstract and merely solved a purely mathematical problem.
Mr. Bilski and Mr. Warsaw appealed that ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which ruled that their patent application was too abstract and that such a process or method would be patentable only if it met the "machine-or-transformation" test. The appeals court said such a test would require a process to be tied to a particular machine or transform an object into something else in order for it to receive a patent.
The appeals court ruling sent shock waves through the high-tech sector as it raised serious questions about whether any business methods or even computer software could ever meet the criteria to receive a patent.
The Supreme Court walked back the appeals court decision Monday, ruling unanimously that Mr. Bilski and Mr. Warsaw's business method was an unpatentable, abstract idea. But the high court declined to define what is patentable.
"Because petitioners' patent application can be rejected under the court's precedents on the unpatentability of abstract ideas, the court need not define further what constitutes a patentable 'process,'" Justice Kennedy wrote in the court's opinion.
J. Michael Jakes, a lawyer who argued the case for Mr. Bilski, called the court's ruling disappointing, but said he was pleased that the court rejected the lower court's "machine-or-transformation" test.
"The Court's decision will encourage continued innovation in today's information economy," he said in a statement. "We will work within the guidance provided by the Court to revise the Bilski/Warsaw claims and obtain the patent protection our client has sought for more than ten years."
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