High Court Urged to Protect Faith Groups' Right to Define Membership

At least 18 different organizations and 13 state attorney generals are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the constitutional rights of religious groups to set membership and leadership criteria according to the dictates of their religious beliefs.

More specifically, the groups and attorney generals are asking the high court to overturn an appeals court ruling that backed a California law school's decision to not recognize a Christian student group because of the group's refusal to allow non-Christians to become voting members or leaders.

In its amicus brief filed at the high court, one of the groups, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), contended that religious groups are constitutionally protected in following their religious beliefs.

"Religious groups by their nature embrace religious principles and, as a matter of organizational identity and coherence, will normally require adherence to such principles as a criterion for membership and certainly for leadership," the legal group stated in the brief – one of at least 19 that were filed by Thursday's deadline.

"This is not 'discrimination' but rather part and parcel of what defines them as religious groups," it added, adding to arguments made by groups including the Boy Scouts of America, Christian Medical and Dental Associations, the American Islamic Congress, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Wooden application of religious 'non-discrimination' policies therefore forces religious groups to choose between their religious identity and access to the forum."

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to intervene in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which was first filed in 2004 after Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco denied official recognition to the local chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) after the student group said it could not abide by the school's non-discrimination policy.

Since the federal civil rights suit was filed against school officials, attorneys with CLS and the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom have argued on behalf of the CLS chapter, insisting that the group should be able to decide its own membership and not be required by the college to admit homosexuals and non-Christians as members and officers in order to receive school recognition.

"It is fundamental to religious freedom that religious groups are free to define their own mission, select their own leaders and determine their own membership criteria," commented ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow in a statement Thursday.

"The First Amendment protections afforded to religious organizations are clear," he added.

In April 2006, however, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of the defendants, including school officials and Hastings Outlaw, a recognized student organization.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that heard oral argument in this case on in March 2009, later affirmed the district court's opinion, ruling against CLS in an unpublished disposition on March 17, 2009.

"The appeals court decision discriminates against religion, undermines Supreme Court precedent, and injects the government into an area that the Constitution forbids," Sekulow commented. "We're hopeful the Supreme Court will reverse the decision of the Ninth Circuit."

Arguments for the Hastings case is expected to take place in the spring.

CLS had filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court on May 5, 2009, seeking a reversal of the Ninth Circuit's decision against CLS.

The Christian Legal Society, which has chapters at universities nationwide, has sued other universities on the same grounds.

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