Why No-Discrimination-Based-on-Religion Conditions for Government Benefits Aren’t Viewpoint-Discriminatory

David and others have argued that university policies that deny benefits to groups that discriminate based on religion are unconstitutionally based on the groups’ viewpoint, when applied to religious groups. Other groups, the argument goes, are allowed to exclude people who don’t share the group’s ideology: The environmentalist group may exclude anti-environmentalists, and the gun rights group may exclude people who support gun bans. But the Christian group can’t exclude non-Christians, and that’s discriminatory against groups that espouse Christian viewpoints.

But I don’t think that constitutes viewpoint discrimination, or even content discrimination. The no-religious-discrimination condition may have a disparate impact on religious groups – it may burden them much more than it burdens nonreligious groups – but disparate impact is not enough to make a facially content-neutral rule into something that’s based on the targets’ viewpoint.

As I argued in my law review article on the freedom of expressive association and government subsidies, the test for content discrimination is whether a rule is justified with reference to the content of the speaker’s speech. A no-religious-discrimination condition is likely not justified by the content of the groups’ speech. Rather, it’s justified by a judgment that discrimination against prospective group members based on their religions is less proper than discrimination based on their other ideologies.

I think that judgment is not persuasive as a moral or practical matter, when applied to religious groups. But it’s a judgment that universities can reasonably make, and that is familiar from antidiscrimination law more broadly, since antidiscrimination law likewise bans discrimination based on targets’ religion and not discrimination based on targets’ other ideologies. And the judgment is not based on the content of speech, or on the viewpoint of speech, or on the religiosity of the regulated groups’ practice: It focuses on the prospective members’ beliefs, not on the regulated groups’ speech or beliefs.

Now of course the university rule, while applicable to groups without regard to their content or viewpoints, does single out a certain kind of exercise of freedom of association rights, and deny it funding. But in the absence of discrimination based on a speaker’s viewpoint, the selective denial of funding to the exercise of certain constitutional rights is permissible (see my original post): The government may fund many medical procedures but not abortion, may give tax exemptions for donations that go to many kinds of speech but not electioneering, and so on.

That the government may not ban an activity doesn’t mean that it has to include it in its subsidy programs. It just can’t discriminate based on speakers’ viewpoint in awarding subsidies; and, as I argue above, the nondiscrimination rules (if evenhandedly applied) don’t discriminate based on speakers’ viewpoint.