On Monday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), a Christian student group, to choose its membership on the basis of a commitment to Christian faith and practice. In its decision, the court drew a critical distinction that FIRE has stressed for years: the distinction between status and belief.
In its amicus brief to the Seventh Circuit in this case, FIRE wrote that “[t]here is a difference between making a determination on the basis of an immutable characteristic and making a choice on the basis of changeable personal beliefs and rules of conduct.” CLS’ policies restrict membership on the basis of religious belief and conduct that reflects those beliefs (voting members and officers must agree that they will not engage in unmarried sexual conduct, be it homosexual or heterosexual) but not on the basis of status (anyone—homosexual or heterosexual—who refrains from unmarried sexual conduct is welcome to join). It is for the same reason that the College Democrats can exclude Republicans, but not men.
In addressing the status/belief distinction, the court wrote that because anyone who refrained from the prohibited forms of sexual conduct could be a member of the group, “CLS’s membership policies are thus based on belief and behavior rather than status, and no language in SIU’s policy prohibits this.” Although many cases before have hinted at this distinction, this is the first case we know of to set it forth so clearly. For this reason, the decision is a particularly important victory for freedom of association.