Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Minority Religious Groups: Is a 'Religious Test' Okay?

Generally speaking, it is usually religious minorities that are discriminated against, not the other way around. This article, posted on the Yeshiva World News website, explains the controversy surrounding a number of religious groups that have been accused of religious discrimination when selecting the leaders of their organizations. Stemming from a case at Hastings Law School in San Francisco, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) recently filed a legal brief in the United States Supreme Court “to defend the right of religious organizations to remain autonomous and to choose their members and leaders without being accused of engaging in religious discrimination.”

Hastings Law School has banned an organization called the Christian Legal Society (CLS), citing some of their practices as violations of the school’s policy on religious discrimination. Although this group’s meetings are open to all students, regardless of religious affiliation, obtaining a leadership position does not come without a religious test. CLS bylaws require “its leaders and voting members to be practicing Christians who abstain from intimacy outside of marriage.” Since the school does not officially recognize the group, CLS has been not been allowed to participate in school sanctioned activities, and has been denied the use of the school’s facilities and email system.

It is no surprise that there are a number of religious groups that partake in similar practices of religious discrimination when organizing themselves. And, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Hastings, this sparked a great uproar among many such groups. In response, NYCI has joined forces with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to file suit in the Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of minority religious groups. Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, the president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is quoted as saying “[i]n America, all faiths have the right to be who they are without interference from the government.” If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling from the Ninth Circuit, there will be some very important and detrimental repercussions for many minority (and possibly majority) religious groups throughout the nation.

There are clearly a number of issues at hand when the dust settles with this case. First, the situation specific to Hastings Law School is interesting, as it is a public school that receives money from the government. As we have already discussed a number of times in class, there are going to be some problems associated with government money being spent on certain religious groups (think Pagan Circles at the Air Force Academy). More importantly, though, is that the school has a strict open-member policy that states that anyone is entitled to be a voting or participating member in any group, even if they do not agree with the mission of that group. It is obvious that the CLS is in violation of the school’s policy, but is this policy constitutional? It is one thing to look at a situation like this that is tangled up in school rules, but what happens when we step outside the boundaries of education? How much of an impact will a decision in favor of Hastings have on private religious groups? Will churches and synagogues be forced to open the doors to their leadership to anyone and everyone?

It is my opinion that a certain level of religious discrimination is not only acceptable, but also necessary within a specific set of scenarios. Religious organizations should be able to use a religious test when selecting their leadership and voting members. NCYI President Shlomo Z. Mostofsky, Esq. says that a ruling like this could force the group to alter their century-old core mission. Isn’t that a pretty distinct infraction on the group’s ability to exercise their religious beliefs freely? He goes on to say that if the decision is upheld in the Supreme Court, “it will not be long before the Young Israel Movement will be forced to change its name to Young Atheist or Young Evangelical, and other Orthodox Jewish organizations will lose their identification as well. It is hard to imagine a legal rule that will be more destructive to Torah Judaism in the United States.” Obviously, this case is going to have profound implications for many religious groups for some time to come.


Abby P said...

This article was very eye-opening. Prior to reading it, it never really occurred to me that there might exist controversy over who has the ability to hold a position of leadership in a religious organization. I agree that religious discrimination to an extent should exist in cases such as these. I think that the religious organization has a right to choose its leadership in a manner that it sees fit. If the religious group believes that its leaders need to be members of the ascribed religion and must therefore abide by its specific stipulations, this seems incredibly reasonable. As was said in the post, restricting such religious groups from choosing their leadership in their own manner, seems to be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.

E.Levy said...

The first thing that’s seems to come to mind when reading this article is an “excessive government entanglement” with religion. Why is the government getting involved with a private religious matter that pertains to individuals who choose to classify themselves in that group? If the government were to hold that religious organizations consent to strict admission policies would that be any more or less constitutional? Private religious institutions have rights, guaranteed by the first amendment, to do as they please, so long as they are in the realm of legality. Requiring an individual to believe in the same faith as the religious institution he represents is not a violation of any United Citizens due process rights.

LaurenL said...

I think it is absurd that the government is getting involved with the leadership selection methods of these religious organizations. It is interesting to note that numerous organizations of different religious affiliations are all in agreement on this issue, as each organization respects the leadership requirements that the other groups have instated. By simply living in this country and being American citizens, we are guaranteed the right to freedom of religion, and if the Supreme Court rules to uphold the Hastings ruling, it will definitely be a violation of that right.

Alicia_W said...

This article is very interesting because it is beginning to show the evolution of religious importance within society. A nation founded on upon Christian ideas is now limiting its rights to certain practices. However, I can understand the government’s reasoning for getting involved. It is a state-run school and is being funded through the state. If people became upset by the voting processes of this Christian organization, the government could potentially be implicated for “supporting” the school.

weinerjoy said...

Hastings Law School is a public school that is federally funded. That holds the entire student body, staff, and faculty to adhere to federal laws regarding religious freedom. The freedom to perform religious tests in order to qualify for leadership positions is not afforded in the constitutional. There are many ways that the Christian Legal Society or any campus organization can vote for and select effective leaders without specific faith based questions. Hastings has an established a well planned open member policy that allows any student the opportunity to participate in any group. Personal religious leanings should never prevent a person from being involved in religious organizations regardless of level. From spectator to President, a campus club participant should be free to perform unhampered by the very personal choice of religious affiliation.