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Student courage and judicial clarity

A 9th Circuit decision strengthens religious freedom on campus


The James R. Browning United States Courthouse building in San Francisco. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu

Student courage and judicial clarity
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Among 2023’s religious freedom highlights, student-athletes deserve special mention. Sports test character on and off the field, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes builds on that potential to nurture Christian character in athletes, whether in the arena of competitive sports or competing worldviews. For FCA student leaders in California’s San Jose school district, that character was tested and confirmed during a multi-year challenge only resolved in federal court. This fall, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld FCA’s religious freedom in an important decision for similar student groups and for religious free exercise generally.

The facts of the case show that FCA student leaders exhibited remarkable courage and integrity in the face of tremendous animosity. FCA had been active at San Jose’s Pioneer High School for almost two decades without any complaints. Then in April 2019, the student group was derecognized just two weeks after a teacher took issue with the FCA statement of faith and conduct that the group’s student leaders are to affirm. That teacher posted the FCA statement in his classroom, expressed his disapproval, invited students to comment on it, and wrote in an email to the school principal that he was “not willing to be the enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.” The school’s “Climate Committee” made up of several school administrators and faculty decided that FCA’s biblical views about sexual relations and marriage were contrary to campus “inclusiveness.” The principal was quoted in the student newspaper referring to the group’s leadership standards as “discriminatory.”

Then the school district stripped FCA of its status as a recognized student group. The club kept meeting but hostility toward it only became more direct. The same teacher emailed the principal suggesting they find a way to “ban FCA completely from campus” using the district’s sexual harassment policy. Students formed a Satanic Temple Club as a mockery and organized disruptive protests of FCA meetings throughout the 2019-2020 school year.

FCA was targeted for requiring leaders to uphold the group’s Christian mission—even though other Pioneer campus groups like the Senior Women Club limit leadership based on their own missions. After a year of ongoing antagonism, FCA and the two female students then leading the campus FCA club asked a federal court to weigh in.

The appeals court noted that the anti-religious hostility shown by public school officials toward FCA students could be considered even more egregious than the animus directed toward Colorado baker Jack Phillips.

In September 2023, the 9th Circuit ruled that the San Jose school district had violated FCA’s religious freedom and directed the district to reinstate the student group. In FCA v. San Jose USD, the appeals court noted that the anti-religious hostility shown by public school officials toward FCA students could be considered even more egregious than the animus directed toward Colorado baker Jack Phillips, which the U.S. Supreme Court had rebuked in its Masterpiece Cakeshop decision in 2018. As the 9th Circuit judges wrote, “This holds particularly true when bearing in mind the hostility here is directed not at adult professionals, but at teenage students.”

The FCA victory is important for future cases involving free exercise claims. The 9th Circuit judges analyzed the facts of the FCA case according to principles used by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent religious liberty decisions such as Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and Tandon v. Newsom. As in those cases, public officials made policy exceptions and regarded similar secular activities with more favor than religious practice. Pioneer public school officials had allowed other groups (like Senior Women) not to comply with its ostensible policy that student clubs must accept “all comers” for membership. Yet they had denied FCA the freedom to make purpose-driven leadership decisions.

FCA v. San Jose USD is particularly significant for securing the freedom of religious student groups. The 9th Circuit’s decision overruled one prior federal court decision against a Christian group at San Diego State University and showed the limits of another ruling against a Christian law student association. The latter decision, Christian Legal Society (CLS) v. Martinez, upheld a California law school’s all-comers policy and denied its CLS chapter the freedom to select leaders affirming its mission. San Jose school district cited this precedent to defend its own policy. The 9th Circuit’s decision rejected that logic, explaining that Martinez is relevant only when an all-comers policy is applied even-handedly “across-the-board” to all student groups, which the district had clearly failed to do. In reality, it is hard to imagine any campus actually forcing all groups to admit everyone by insisting, for example, that Senior Women allow freshman boys to run their club.

FCA v San Jose USD is an important victory for religious liberty. The decision upholds the freedom of religious student groups. It also brings greater clarity to how courts consider conflicts between government policy and religious free exercise. For these outcomes, we can thank two courageous young women who, as high school leaders of their campus FCA, stood their ground against intimidation and helped strengthen protection for our first freedom on behalf of us all.


Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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