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ACLJ to Supreme Court: Protect Rights of Christian Groups on Campus


Jay Sekulow

June 21, 2011

4 min read

American Heritage



It's a closely watched case at the Supreme Court of the United States that will have significant implications. 

We filed an amicus brief today on behalf of numerous Christian campus groups urging the high court to protect the constitutional rights of religious groups to set membership and leadership criteria according to the dictates of their religious beliefs. 

We are asking the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision that upheld a California law schools denial of official recognition of a Christian student group. The Christian group refused to agree to let non-Christians to become voting members or leaders.

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.

The First Amendment protections afforded to religious organizations are clear.  The appeals court decision discriminates against religion, undermines Supreme Court precedent, and injects the government into an area that the Constitution forbids.  Were hopeful the Supreme Court will reverse the decision of the Ninth Circuit.

The case involves a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit siding with the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Hastings denied official recognition to a student group the Christian Legal Society (CLS) after CLS said it could not abide by the schools non-discrimination policy. That policy forbids student groups from discriminating on the basis of, among other things, religion. CLS says its religious beliefs prevent non-Christians from exercising control over the group by becoming voting members or serving in leadership positions.

In our friend-of-the-court brief filed today, we contend 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 brief asserts.  This is not discrimination but rather part and parcel of what defines them as religious groups.  Wooden application of religious non-discrimination policies therefore forces religious groups to choose between their religious identity and access to the forum.  That choice is an unconstitutional one between yielding to government intermeddling and no access at all.  Far from a permissible condition on benefits, this is a choice that the government, under the Religion Clauses, has no business imposing on religious groups.

Our legal argument is clear:  the appeals court decision violates the constitutional protections afforded to religious groups and must be reversed.

The brief states:  A policy of non-discrimination by the government promotes a wholesome neutrality.  But when the government extends that same policy to private religious groups and directs them not to discriminate on religious grounds, it strays into forbidden territory.  Such a policy inevitably undermines the Courts equal access cases, discriminates against religion, and injects the government into mattersthe leadership and membership criteria of religious groupsthat the Religion Clauses put squarely out of bounds.  The judgment of the Court of Appeals should be reversed.

You can read the ACLJ amicus brief here

The ACLJ represents Christian leaders and organizations active on college and university campuses.

We represent the following in our amicus brief:

Bridget Mergens was one of the plaintiffs in the Mergens case.  This case produced a critical equal access victory - a case I argued nearly 20 years ago at the Supreme Court. (Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990)).

Pastor Jonathan Williams who was a plaintiff in the Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981), another significant equal access case.

Wide Awake Productions (WAP) produces Wide Awake, the journal at issue in Rosenberger v. Rector of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995), and was a plaintiff in that case. 

CHoosE Him (Christian Hoos Exalt Him) is a Christian a capella singing group at the University of Virginia, founded in 1995, that combines evangelism with singing. 

We also represent a number of Christian campus ministries that operate across the nation:  The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Bible Fellowship International, Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, Young Life (through its Young Life College program), the Navigators, ReJOYce IN JESUS Ministries, Inc., and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).  And, we represent Alpha Delta Chi, a national Christian sorority, and Alpha Gamma Omega, a national Christian fraternity.

Each of the amici listed above recognize the importance of having leadership, and the authority to select leadership, vested in individuals who personally share the principles that guide a religious ministry.

The case is Christian Legal Society v. Martinez


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