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Christian student group’s rights recognized by 9th Circuit


WORLD Radio - Christian student group’s rights recognized by 9th Circuit

Students affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes win in court against a hostile school district in California

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

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Religious liberty on campus.

Many who become Christians in high school or college do so through the ministry of student groups like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In recent years, however, school districts and campuses have enacted increasingly broad anti-discrimination policies that classify aspects of Christian beliefs unacceptable on campus.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: But a recent appeals court ruling on the West Coast stands to help Christian student groups by defending their right to require their student leaders to abide by religious principles.

Last Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a California school district mistreated students in a high school club affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian athletes.

BROWN: What’s the story behind this case, and how will its outcome help Christian student groups in other parts of the country?

Joining us now is WORLD legal reporter Steve West. Good morning!

STEVE WEST, REPORTER: Good morning, Myrna.

BROWN: Well let’s start with some context. What did Pioneer High School in San Jose, California, do to wind up in court with FCA?

WEST: Bottom line is that administrators were openly hostile to the religious beliefs of FCA.

Like a lot of other high schools across the country, Pioneer’s FCA “Huddle” had been operating on campus as an officially recognized student group for some time–in this case, for nearly two decades. It had no problems—until 2019. Like all FCA student groups, the club welcomes all students, regardless of their beliefs, but requires leaders to subscribe to the group’s sexual purity statement and statement of faith. Among other Biblical beliefs, the statements include an affirmation that marriage is only between one man and one woman and that it is the only appropriate place for sexual expression.

That didn’t sit well with one teacher, Peter Glasser. He wanted the group de-recognized—meaning it would lose the privileges to book meeting space, advertise, and take advantage of perks other student groups had. He took it to the principal and a school committee. As a result, in April 2019 the school stripped the club of its official recognition.

BROWN: But it didn’t end there, did it?

WEST: No, it didn’t. Glasser pressed for exclusion of the club from campus. Some other teachers piled on, one urging students to “rally … against the issue”—and some did.

Ultimately, the school denied recognition of FCA for the 2019-20 school year, but these students kept meeting even in the face of teacher-encouraged student protests. Students protested outside FCA meetings and even entered meetings, taking photographs and heckling members. And that went on until pandemic restrictions closed school in March 2020.

In April 2020, two FCA student leaders at Pioneer, Charlotte Klarke and Elizabeth Sinclair, and FCA National filed suit against the school district and several school officials.

BROWN: So the case went to trial at the district court level back in June 2022 and the court ruled in the school district’s favor. What case did FCA’s lawyers make, and how did the school defend its decision?

WEST: There are several arguments that FCA’s lawyers made, but the linchpin is free exercise of religion. The school cited its anti-discrimination policy, saying it was content-neutral and applied to everyone the same. FCA pointed to the impact on the club’s religious beliefs—including that the policy was applied in a way that was discriminatory.

BROWN: What arguments did the judges of the 9th Circuit make in their ruling?

WEST: In the 2-1 panel decision in August of last year—which judges expedited in light of the coming school year—the majority focused not on discriminatory intent, on outright hostility, but on different treatment of FCA. For example, the Senior Women’s club was limited to women. They could discriminate. FCA could not.

When the full court of 11 judges set aside that ruling, there was obviously concern that the full court might undo the ruling. Far from that, a 9-2 majority last week extended the ruling, also focusing on the school’s outright hostility to FCA’s beliefs—finding that it was worse even than that faced from Colorado authorities by Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips. Judges also noted the importance of a 1984 federal law, the Equal Access Act, which says that if a school opens its campus to extracurricular groups, it has to offer religious groups the same privileges as non-religious groups.

BROWN: How does this ruling help Christian school groups in other parts of the country who are facing similar pressure to conform or lose official status?

WEST: The ruling is the law in the largely western states and territories that make up the 9th Circuit. So school districts in those states–which accounts for approximately 20% of the nation’s student population, are bound by this ruling and may not discriminate against student extracurricular clubs based on their religious views. Yet because of the size of the 9th Circuit and the fact that this was a lopsided ruling by the full court, it will have a powerful impact on other courts—second only to the Supreme Court. It’s too early to know if the school district will appeal to the Supreme Court, but they likely know that this Supreme Court is unlikely to change the result here.

BROWN: Well, Steve West is a legal reporter for WORLD. You can learn more about cases like this every week by signing up for his religious liberty newsletter…we’ve included a link in today’s show notes:

Steve, thanks for joining us!

WEST: My pleasure, Myrna.

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