March 24, 2012

09 RNS: Supreme Court Declines Religous Liberty Case

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Supreme Court Declines
Religious Liberty Case

Denial allows 9th Circuit ruling against campus Christian groups to stand

BY LEIGH JONES                                                                                                                     ©2012 WORLD News Service 

The U.S. Supreme Court announced in March it will not hear a campus religious liberty case experts had hoped would give Christian groups more freedom to operate at secular schools.

Campus ministry groups looked to a ruling in ADX v. Reed to clarify a 2010 decision some schools now use to deny Christian organizations the right to pick leaders based on their beliefs.

Although some might point to today's decision as a victory for schools that want to restrict the activities of Christian groups, Alliance Defense Fund attorney David Cortman said no one should read too much into the denial.

"Deciding not to hear a case is actually no opinion at all," he said. "We're not supposed to attach any meaning to it. The court has taken no position on the case."

But in reality, the court's decision will allow San Diego State University to continue requiring Christian organizations to accept leaders who might not share their beliefs. And emboldened by the school's legal victory, others are sure to follow suit.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that San Diego State University did not violate the constitutional rights of two Christian organizations - sorority Alpha Delta Chi and fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega - when it denied them official recognition because they had clauses in their constitutions requiring leaders to sign a statement of faith. School administrators told the groups they would have to ditch the requirement if they wanted to use school facilities and apply for student activity fee funding.

The 9th Circuit largely based its decision on a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that gave public colleges and universities permission to adopt policies requiring all campus groups to be open to all students - as both members and leaders. But in CLS v. Martinez, the Supreme Court did not rule on whether such a policy could be enforced selectively.

In ADX v. Reed, the 9th Circuit decided it could.

Several campus Christian organizations, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship had hoped the Supreme Court would reverse the 9th Circuit's ruling and clarify the application of CLS v. Martinez. InterVarsity is one of several groups facing challenges over its leadership requirements at other schools.

"We are very disappointed that the court is not taking the case," Jim Lundgren, director of collegiate ministries for InterVarsity, said. "At this point, we are checking on our options and considering next steps."

An InterVarsity chapter at the State University of New York at Buffalo faces an April 4 deadline to submit a new constitution that does not include a statement of faith requirement for leaders. The school's Student Association Senate claims such requirements violate the school's nondiscrimination policy and points to CLS v. Martinez as support for demanding Christian organizations comply.

Vanderbilt University also used the case to justify a new policy requiring religious groups to open leadership positions to all students, regardless of their beliefs. InterVarsity and three other Christian groups have until mid April to submit new constitutions or be kicked off campus.

Because Vanderbilt University is a private school, it is not bound by the high court's rulings on the First Amendment, and Christian groups do not have any legal recourse to fight the school's decision. But at state schools, like SUNY Buffalo, groups still can ask lower courts to weigh in on the issue, regardless of today's decision not to hear ADX v. Reed.

In fact, as more cases move through the courts, the Supreme Court's inclination to take one of them increases, especially if different decisions come out of different lower court jurisdictions, Cortman said: "This gives us all the more reason to continue fighting."