(CN) – San Diego State University may be selectively applying its nondiscrimination policy to stifle evangelical Christian student groups, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
Fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega and sorority Alpha Delta Chi, both of which require pledges to adhere to evangelical Christian beliefs as a condition of membership, sued the university in California’s Southern District for repeatedly rejecting their applications for official club status. The university argued that the groups’ membership requirements violated its nondiscrimination policy.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns rejected the groups’ challenges to the policy under the First and 14th Amendments. The federal appeals court in Pasadena affirmed in part, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Christian Legal Society Chapter of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law v. Martinez. In that case, the high court found that viewpoint-neutral, “all-comers” polices like the one in force at San Diego State do not violate the Constitution.
“San Diego State’s nondiscrimination policy, as written, is a rule of general application,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for a three-judge panel. “It does not target religious belief or conduct, and does not ‘impose special disabilities’ on plaintiffs or other religious groups. Any burden on religion is incidental to the general application of the policy. Thus, as written, San Diego State’s policy violates neither the free exercise clause nor the equal protection clause.”
Even so, the groups have offered enough evidence in their complaint to show that San Diego State may be applying its policy improperly and in violation of the free-exercise clause, according to the panel.
“Plaintiffs … offer evidence that San Diego State has granted official recognition to some religious student groups even though those groups, like plaintiffs, restrict membership or eligibility to hold office based on religious belief,” Pregerson wrote. “For example, the Catholic Newman Center’s application for official recognition by San Diego State provides that its officers must be ‘members, in good standing, with the Catholic Church.’ Further, some non-religious but officially recognized groups appear to discriminate on prohibited grounds, in contravention of the policy. For instance, the African Student Drama Association’s constitution limits its leadership positions to students from Africa.”
The panel remanded the case back to U.S. District Court for “further findings as to whether San Diego State in fact exempted other student groups from the nondiscrimination policy, but refused to exempt plaintiffs because of their religious beliefs.”