By Nate Raymond and Jonathan Stempel
BOSTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Thursday upheld Harvard University's use of race in undergraduate admissions, rejecting a challenge by affirmative action opponents who said the Ivy League school's policy discriminates against Asian-Americans.
Opponents of the decision, by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, promised to appeal to the Supreme Court, where legal experts believe the 6-3 conservative majority could use the case to end more than 40 years of allowing race as a factor in higher education admissions.
The appeals court rejected claims by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, which drew support from Republican President Donald Trump's administration.
SFFA said Harvard engaged in impermissible "racial balancing" to make it easier for Blacks and Hispanics to win admission, and did not narrowly tailor its use of race.
It said this violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the school must comply with in order to receive federal funding.
U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, however, said Harvard's use of race was not "impermissibly extensive" and was instead "meaningful," because it prevented diversity from plummeting.
"Harvard's race-conscious admissions program ensures that Harvard can retain the benefits of diversity it has already achieved," she said.
In a statement, Blum pledged to ask the Supreme Court "to end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies at Harvard and all colleges and universities."
The Supreme Court has allowed race to be used in college admissions to promote diversity in the classroom.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the university will continue defending its admissions practices.
"The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a student body that enriches the education of every student," he said in a statement.
Thursday's 2-0 decision upheld an October 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in Boston. A third judge on the appeals court panel, Juan Torruella, died last month.
Burroughs had concluded that Harvard's admissions program was "not perfect" but that the school had no "workable and available race-neutral alternatives."
Lynch said the nature of Harvard's admissions process, including that applicants win approval from a 40-person committee before being offered admission, "offset any risk of bias."
In a "friend-of-the-court brief, the U.S. Department of Justice backed SFFA, saying Harvard "actively engages in racial balancing that Supreme Court precedent flatly forbids."
The Justice Department filed a similar lawsuit on Oct. 8 against Yale University, accusing that Ivy League school of discriminating against Asian and white applicants.
Yale said it "does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity," and would not change its admissions policies because of what it called the government's "baseless" lawsuit.
SFFA is also pursuing a similar case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenging its consideration of race as a factor in its admissions process. A non-jury trial in that case began on Monday.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Catherine Evans, Jonathan Oatis and Steve Orlofsky)