updated 6/28/2010 6:53:56 PM ET 2010-06-28T22:53:56

The Supreme Court held Monday that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live, expanding the conservative court's embrace of gun rights since John Roberts became chief justice.

By a 5-4 vote, the justices cast doubt on handgun bans in the Chicago area, but signaled that some limitations on the Constitution's "right to keep and bear arms" could survive legal challenges.

On its busy final day before a three-month recess, the court also ruled that a public law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join, jumped into the nation's charged immigration debate by agreeing to review an employer sanctions law from Arizona and said farewell to Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring after more than 34 years.

A short distance from the court, the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Stevens.

In the guns case, Justice Samuel Alito said for the court that the Second Amendment right "applies equally to the federal government and the states."

The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and four liberals opposed. Roberts voted with the majority.

Two years ago, the court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the home.

That ruling applied only to federal laws. It struck down a ban on handguns and a trigger lock requirement for other guns in the District of Columbia, a federal city with unique legal standing. At the same time, the court was careful not to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms here.

Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill., where handguns have been banned for nearly 30 years. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says those laws appear to be the last two remaining outright bans.

Lower federal courts upheld the two laws, noting that judges on those benches were bound by Supreme Court precedent and that it would be up to the high court justices to ultimately rule on the true reach of the Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights serve as a check on state and local, as well as federal, laws.

Monday's decision did not explicitly strike down the Chicago area laws. Instead, it ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling. But it left little doubt that the statutes eventually would fall.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he was disappointed with the ruling, adding that officials already are at work rewriting the ordinance to meet the court's gun rights guarantee and protect Chicago residents from gun violence.

Alito made plain that local officials still have some leeway in crafting gun laws. He noted that the declaration that the Second Amendment is fully binding on states and cities "limits (but by no means eliminates) their ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, each wrote a dissent. Stevens said that unlike the Washington case, Monday's decision "could prove far more destructive — quite literally — to our nation's communities and to our constitutional structure."

The ruling seemed unlikely to resolve questions and ongoing legal challenges about precisely what sort of gun control laws are permissible.

The response of the District to the court's ruling in 2008 is illustrative of the uncertainty.

Local lawmakers in Washington, D.C., imposed a series of regulations on handgun ownership, including requirements to register weapons and to submit to a multiple-choice test, fingerprinting and a ballistics test. Owners must also show they have gotten classroom instruction on handling a gun and have spent at least an hour on the firing range. Some 800 people have now registered handguns in the city.

Anticipating a similar result in their case, Chicago lawmakers are looking at even more stringent regulations.

But the new regulations themselves are likely to themselves be the subject of lawsuits, a fact noted by the dissenting justices Monday. Already in Washington, Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original case before the Supreme Court, has sued the city over its new laws.

Heller argues that the stringent restrictions violate the intent of the high court's decision. So far, a federal judge has upheld the limitations, but the case has been appealed.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said his politically powerful group "will continue to work at every level to insure that defiant city councils and cynical politicians do not transform this constitutional victory into a practical defeat through Byzantine regulations and restrictions."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ardent proponent of gun control, said the ruling allows cities "to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists while at the same time respecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."

New York does not ban guns, but restricts who can have them.

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The court also was split between liberals and conservatives in its 5-4 ruling against a Christian student group that sought official recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law.

The Christian Legal Society requires that voting members sign a statement of faith and regards "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" as being inconsistent with that faith.

But Hastings said no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation.

The high court upheld the lower court rulings saying the Christian group's First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college's decision.

"In requiring CLS — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations," Ginsburg said in the court's majority opinion. "CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy." Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberals in the outcome.

Alito wrote a strong dissent for the court's conservatives, saying the opinion was "a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country."

"Our proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom of express 'the thought that we hate,'" Alito said. "Today's decision rests on a very different principle: no freedom of expression that offends prevailing standards of political correctness in our country's institutions of higher learning."

In his final appearance on the bench, Stevens read aloud a brief letter to the other justices, after Roberts read one to Stevens.

The 90-year-old justice pointed out how times had changed since he joined the court in 1975. Then, he said, he would have addressed his remarks to his brethren.

Now, with two women as justices, he called them his colleagues.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Supreme Courts calls the shots on guns

  1. Transcript of: Supreme Courts calls the shots on guns

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Venice, Louisiana): major decision from the US Supreme Court on gun rights . The high court ruled that the right to bear arms applies nationwide, which limits not just federal gun control laws, but state and local laws, too. This happened on the same day that confirmation hearings got under way for the woman who would be President Obama 's next Supreme Court nominee , Elena Kagan . Our justice correspondent Pete Williams at the court tonight covering it all. Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: And, Brian , as surprising as it may seem, it wasn't until today that the Supreme Court said the Second Amendment applies to all state and local gun laws , not just federal ones. It's a victory for Otis McDonald , who lives on Chicago's south side and wanted a gun to defend himself from drug dealers and violent gangs.

    Mr. OTIS McDONALD: I believe now that they will think twice before they come in on somebody that they think -- who is as equally armed as they are.

    P. WILLIAMS: Today's ruling said the nation's founders considered the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms "among the fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty." But the court was deeply divided, with the four more liberal justices vigorously dissenting.

    Unidentified Man: You better say, `This is my block.'

    P. WILLIAMS: The ruling dooms a strict handgun ban in Chicago , a city struggling with an epidemic of gun violence . The mayor promised quick action to limit gun ownership .

    Mayor RICHARD DALEY (Democrat, Chicago): We will continue to pursue every avenue that reduces the chance of violence involving a handgun or any other weapon in Chicago .

    P. WILLIAMS: But the ruling leaves the door open to some gun restrictions. Chicago officials say they might require gun registration or training courses, but advocates of gun rights vow to fight any city that tries to raise new barriers to gun ownership .

    Mr. WAYNE LaPIERRE (National Riffle Association): Wherever they put this Byzantine labyrinth of rules and restrictions that make it impossible for the average citizen to exercise this freedom, we're going after.

    P. WILLIAMS: The next legal battles are already brewing over carrying guns in public or taking them into bars and restaurants, or over requirements that guns be locked up at home. Advocates of gun control note that today's ruling applies only to the right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.

    Mr. PAUL HELMKE (Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence): That doesn't mean you have a right to any gun, and you don't have a right to take it any place you want to. And not everybody can do this sort of thing. So it's a limited decision.

    P. WILLIAMS: This was the last day on the bench for John Paul Stevens after 34 1/2 years. He told the court, "If I've overstayed my welcome it's because this is such a unique and wonderful job." In tribute, many in the courtroom wore bowties, his neck wear of choice. And across the street the Senate began confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan , nominated to replace him.

    Ms. ELENA KAGAN: I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance with law.

    P. WILLIAMS: And the senators begin asking their questions tomorrow. Brian :

    B. WILLIAMS: Pete Williams with all the news from the Supreme Court in Washington tonight. Pete , thanks.

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