WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court confronts a gay rights issue this week in a case that asks whether law schools can bar military recruiters because of the Pentagon's ''don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Each fall recruiters visit law schools seeking top students in job fairs, receptions, and interview sessions.
Justices will decide whether universities that accept government money must accommodate the military even if the schools forbid the participation of recruiters from public agencies and private companies that have discriminatory policies.
It is the first time that the court has dealt with a gay rights-related case since a 2003 ruling that struck down laws criminalizing gay sex. In 2000, the court ruled that the Boy Scouts have the right to ban leaders who are openly gay.
The latest appeal pits the Pentagon against a group of law schools and professors. The justices hear arguments tomorrow.
The government contends if it provides financial support to a college -- with grants for research, for example -- then in exchange it should be able to recruit ''the very students whose education it has supported."
Federal financial support of colleges tops $35 billion a year.
Law schools say they would welcome military recruiters if the Pentagon dropped its policy against openly gay personnel. Gays and lesbians may serve only if they keep their sexual orientation to themselves.
The outcome turns on the First Amendment and whether schools can be made to associate with military recruiters or promote their appearances on campus.
''Part of the cultural meaning of the case is bound up in questions about gay rights," said Cornell Law School professor Trevor Morrison, a former clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ''Indirectly, it's about the 'don't ask, don't tell policy.' "
A federal law, known as the Solomon Amendment, mandates that universities, including their law and medical schools and other branches, give the military the same access as other recruiters or forfeit public money.
Congress passed the Solomon Amendment in 1994, the same year that lawmakers approved the ''don't ask, don't tell" policy.
''In order to recruit the most talented men and women into the armed services, the military must be able to recruit students on college and university campuses, just as other employers do," justices were told in a filing by Paul Clement, the Bush administration's top Supreme Court lawyer.