SEATTLE – A gay softball organization that runs an annual tournament called the Gay Softball World Series can keep its rule limiting the number of heterosexual players on each team, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by three men who say they were disqualified from the annual tournament because they weren’t gay enough. They said in the suit filed last year that their team’s second-place finish in the 2008 tournament in Washington state was nullified because they are bisexual, not gay, and thus their team exceeded the limit of two non-gay players.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said Tuesday that their suit can proceed to trial. But he also ruled that the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, which also oversees gay softball leagues in dozens of U.S. cities, has a First Amendment right to limit the number of heterosexual players, much as the Boy Scouts have a constitutional right to exclude gays.

“It would be difficult for NAGAAA to effectively emphasize a vision of the gay lifestyle rooted in athleticism, competition and sportsmanship if it were prohibited from maintaining a gay identity,” the judge wrote.

However, Coughenour said questions remain about the way the softball association applied its rule, including whether the questions asked about the men’s sexuality at a protest hearing were unnecessarily intrusive. Therefore, the case can proceed toward a trial set for Aug. 1, he said.

The San Francisco-based team the men played on, D2, was disqualified after others at the tournament questioned their sexuality and filed a protest.