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Appeals court vindicates Fellowship of Christian Athletes students

9th Circuit broadens protection for religious groups on high school campuses

Appeals court vindicates Fellowship of Christian Athletes students

A federal appeals court Wednesday chastised a California school district for its hostility toward a Fellowship of Christian Athletes student group, calling administrators and teachers out for disparaging the group and attempting to drive it from campus.

In a 9-2 ruling, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vindicated the right of an FCA student group at San Jose’s Pioneer High School to select leaders who agree with its statement of faith. School officials had restricted the group, citing an anti-discrimination policy adopted by the San Jose Unified School District.

Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan lauded the goal of anti-discrimination policies like one the school district relied on but said constitutional guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion trump such policies. “Even if the views held by FCA may be considered to be out-of-date by many, the First Amendment ‘counsel[s] mutual respect and tolerance . . . for religious and non-religious views alike,’” wrote Callahan, citing Supreme Court precedent.

Joining the opinion but writing a separate concurrence, Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest emphasized that the school also violated the Equal Access Act. The 1984 federal law prohibits public secondary schools from denying equal access to student-initiated clubs based on the content of speech at club meetings. “The height of irony is that the district excluded FCA students from fully participating … in the name of preventing discrimination to purportedly ensure that all students feel welcome,” Forrest concluded.

According to the majority opinion, Pioneer’s FCA “Huddle” had been operating on campus without incident and as an officially recognized student group for nearly two decades without objection—until 2019. Like all FCA student groups, the Pioneer Huddle welcomes all students, regardless of their beliefs, for prayer and fellowship 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.

In April 2019, a teacher at Pioneer, Peter Glasser, obtained copies of the two statements from students and posted them on his classroom whiteboard. He wrote on the board: “I am deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements. How do you feel?”

Glasser took his views to Principal Herb Espiritu and the school’s “Climate Committee,” encouraging them to de-recognize and exclude FCA. “I am an adult on your campus, and these views are [obscenity] to me,” he wrote to Espiritu. “They have no validity. It’s not a choice, and it’s not a sin. I’m not willing to be the enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.”

Two days after the committee meeting, Espiritu gave FCA student leaders the verdict: The school district had decided to strip the club of its official recognition. That meant that while the club could still exist and meet on campus, it could not book meeting space, advertise in school media, or share in any student activity fundraisers.

Even so, Glasser pressed for exclusion, suggesting that the club could be accused of creating a hostile work environment for adults because of its beliefs and wondering whether the school could “ban FCA completely from campus.” Other teachers piled on, one urging students to “rally … against the issue”—and some did.

The school denied recognition of FCA for the 2019-20 school year, but that did not stop student-led protests against FCA that began in the fall of 2019. Students protested outside FCA meetings and even entered meetings, taking photographs and heckling members. Protests continued unabated 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, including Espiritu and Glasser.

Over two years later, in June 2022, a federal judge sided with the school district, calling the district’s policy “content-neutral because it does not preclude religious speech but rather prohibits acts of discrimination.” In late August 2022, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed the ruling, finding that the school did not apply what it said was an “all-comers” policy in an evenhanded way.

In January, the full 11-member court said it would re-hear the case, effectively setting aside the panel’s earlier ruling—and leaving FCA subject to the lower court’s order allowing the school district’s de-recognition of the group to stand.

No more, says Kim Colby, an attorney working with the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom. Colby, who served as co-counsel for FCA and the students, pointed to the breadth of the decision. The 9th Circuit ruling is binding in federal judicial districts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon and Washington—affecting millions of students.

The ruling is much broader than the prior panel ruling, Colby said. “The panel had focused very narrowly on just the fact that the religious student group was shut down for being discriminatory when other discriminatory student groups were being allowed to meet,” she said. In Callahan’s decision, she referenced the Senior Women’s Club, which is “only open to ‘seniors who identify as female.’”

In Wednesday’s ruling, the court went further, saying that when officials have a right to grant exemptions, the policy’s application must be strictly scrutinized, meaning school officials have to have a compelling reason to justify the disparate treatment. They did not have a good reason here, Colby said.

Colby became emotional when she addressed another basis for the court’s ruling: school officials’ hostility to students’ Christian beliefs—animus the court noted was greater than that expressed by Colorado officials toward Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips.

“The facts of this case arguably demonstrate animus by government decision-makers exceeding that present in Masterpiece Cakeshop,” wrote the court. “This holds particularly true when bearing in mind the hostility here is directed not at adult professionals, but at teenage students.”

Colby noted that a teacher led the attack on students’ beliefs. “Teachers aren’t supposed to be criticizing students’ religious beliefs,” she said. “And instead of being told, ‘Hey, don’t do that. That’s not what we do in public schools here,’ he was encouraged. … I don’t know how the students handled it as well as they did.” She said the ruling was “a vindication of these wonderful students who held firm to their religious faith in a very hostile environment.”

San Jose Unified said in a statement issued after the ruling that it is considering its next steps in the litigation, reported Courthouse News Service.

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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