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A fundamentalist Christian political party led entirely by men was told by the Netherlands' Supreme Court on Friday that it must accept women in leadership roles.
The Political Reformed Party, known by its Dutch acronym SGP, has consistently held two or three seats in the country's 150-member national parliament since the 1920s but has never had a female candidate at any level.
"People say it's only a small party, so why bother?" said Kathalijne Buitenweg, chair of the women's rights organization that brought the case challenging SGP policies.
"But can you imagine the outcry there would be in this country if a party with these principles had been organized by Muslims?"
The SGP, which says it draws its inspiration from the Bible, has argued that restricting leadership roles to men is justified by religious freedom.
"The constitutional right to freedom of religion does indeed give the party the right to express its opinions," said Judge Detmer Beukenhorst, reading a summary of the court's ruling in The Hague.
"But in a democratic country, political ideals and programs can only be carried out within the boundaries set by laws."
The ruling said the party's policies are in conflict with the 1979 U.N. Treaty for the Rights of Women and it instructed the Dutch government to take unspecified measures to force the SGP to change.
Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin was quoted by Dutch paper De Volkskrant Friday as saying he hoped the SGP would "draw its own conclusions" from the ruling.
In a statement, the SGP criticized the ruling as "incomprehensible" and said it would have no immediate effect.
"The SGP knows that it is dependent on God in all circumstances and will go on no less strongly carrying out its mission," it said. "That is, bringing Biblical values into the governance and organization of the Netherlands."
It then unveiled its list of candidates for national elections in June -- with no women among them.
The SGP draws most of its support from members of various conservative Calvinist churches, notably the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, in an area known as the Dutch Bible Belt.
Buitenweg said that in a way it was surprising the ruling is coming now, and not a generation earlier. But she said the government and many people have turned a blind eye to the SGP, rationalizing it as politically irrelevant.
In addition, most of the women in communities where the party is strong do not support modernization.