Metro Weekly

School District Must Recognize Christian Club Opposed to Gay Marriage

9th Circuit finds school district violated First Amendment by refusing to recognize Fellowship of Christian Athletes as an official student club.

Photo: Bill Oxford, via Unsplash.

A federal appeals court has ruled that the San Jose Unified School District cannot refuse to officially recognize a Christian student group that requires its club leaders to sign a religious pledge disavowing same-sex marriage. 

On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, 2-1, that the district violated the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it revoked the organization’s status and an officially recognized club.

The school district revoked the club’s status in 2019, citing the statement, which says that sex should be limited to marriage, which is “the union of one man and one woman.”  The district concluded that the club’s requirement violated the district’s nondiscrimination policy because gay students could not be officers of the club without renouncing their identities.

FCA and two student members from one of the district’s high schools sued the district after it revoked the club’s official status, a designation that allows clubs to recruit new members, receive school funds, hold meetings on school grounds, and work with faculty advisors. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed that the policy was discriminatory and violated the students’ religious beliefs, as well as their free speech rights, according to Reuters

At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, the district adopted an “all-comers” policy, which requires that officially recognized clubs must allow any currently enrolled student to participate in, become a member of, or hold leadership positions within the club, regardless of their status or beliefs. Yet FCA would still not be recognized under such a policy, because it would prohibit them from selecting leaders who agree with the club’s stated religious beliefs. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lee, writing for the majority, found that the San Jose Unified School District selectively enforced its policy by singling out FCA while allowing other, secular student groups, such as a “Girls Who Code” club that bars boys, to discriminate against prospective members.

Lee said that FCA was likely to succeed in establishing the school’s policy violated FCA and the student members’ rights, and that a lower court judge wrongly denied a request for an injunction blocking the school from barring FCA from campus or denying it access to the same type of resources offered to other clubs.

“Under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral when it comes to religion: It cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones,” Lee wrote. “But the School District did just that.”

In addition to ordering the lower court to issue an order reinstating FCA’s status as an officially recognized club, Lee also penned a concurrence to the majority opinion highlighting comments by various teachers revealing “animus” towards FCA and its members, even though the teachers in question were not involved in the decision to revoke FCA’s status.

“The School District is incorrect that our animus inquiry must be strictly limited to the actions or words of the ‘decision makers,'” Lee wrote. “As the Supreme Court held, we may assess ‘the historical background’ and ‘specific series of events leading’ to the decision in question. And the ‘historical background’ and ‘series of events’ leading to FCA’s de-recognition included animus against FCA’s religious beliefs by multiple Pioneer [High School] officials.

“The defendants also cannot dismiss their past animus by relying on the newly-adopted All-Comers Policy,” Lee continued. “In sum, animus against the FCA students’ religious based views infected the School District’s decision to strip the FCA of its [officially recognized] status. And that violates the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen dissented, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek an injunction preventing the district from denying access and resources to FCA. 

Daniel Blomberg, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement that the court’s ruling “has put an end to this discrimination and ensured FCA students are treated fairly and equally.”

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