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A federal appeals court ruling this week could significantly diminish public university religious groups' ability to restrict membership and leadership to students who agree with their teachings.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday (Aug. 2) that San Diego State University (SDSU)'s nondiscrimination policy for officially recognized campus groups is constitutional and does not violate the rights of two Christian groups. The policy is based on a nondiscrimination policy used at all the schools in the California State University system.

The two Christian groups, sorority Alpha Delta Chi and fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega, had sued SDSU in 2005, alleging the policy violated their free-speech and religious-freedom rights. In order for the groups to be recognized as official campus groups, they were required to allow all students to be members, even if their beliefs were contradictory to the group's beliefs.

The three-judge panel disagreed with the groups, stating the policy is a "rule of general application" that is not unconstitutional in its intent. "[We] do not doubt that, regardless of [SDSU]'s purpose in enacting its nondiscrimination policy, the policy will have the effect of burdening some groups more than others," circuit judge Harry Pregerson wrote in the panel's decision. "But the fact that a 'regulation has a differential impact on groups wishing to enforce exclusionary membership policies' does not render it unconstitutional. … Any burden on religion is incidental to the general application of the policy."

But Jordan Lorence, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and a lawyer who argued for the Christian groups, said the intent of SDSU's policy is irrelevant. "If there is an official policy that violates ...

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