Banned Christian club still at odds with California school district
Federal appeals court agrees to reconsider ruling in favor of Fellowship of Christian Athletes
A federal appeals court has agreed to reconsider a dispute between a California school district and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, potentially reinforcing the rights of Christian clubs at other schools.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order last week stating that a majority of the court’s members had voted in favor of rehearing the case. That vacates the court’s previous ruling that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at San Jose’s Pioneer High School had a right to follow its statement of Biblical beliefs about marriage and sexuality. For the time being, the school district may ban the group unless it opens its leadership to students who do not adhere to its statement of faith.
Wednesday’s order is the latest twist in a battle between the club and the school district that stretches back to May 2019, when the club was stripped of its official status. Since the early 2000s, approved FCA clubs had operated at three of the district’s schools with no complaints. But after some students gave social studies teacher Peter Glasser a copy of an FCA Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement in April 2019, controversy erupted.
Without talking to any student in FCA, Glasser hung the statement on his classroom whiteboard and wrote that he was “deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements.” In an email to Pioneer Principal Herbert Espiritu, he railed against FCA’s views. “I am an adult on your campus, and these views are [profanity] to me,” wrote Glasser. “They have no validity. It’s not a choice, and it’s not a sin. I’m not willing to be an enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.”
Espiritu convened the school’s Climate Committee to consider Glasser’s concerns. Michelle Bowman, another teacher and committee member, lambasted the FCA’s evangelical roots. “Evangelicals, like FCA, are charlatans and not in the least bit Christian based or they ‘conveniently’ forget what tolerance means,” wrote Bowman in a November 2020 email to a student, adding, “They choose darkness over knowledge and they perpetuate ignorance.” Student protests followed.
School district officials ultimately banned the club for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year, citing its noncompliance with the school’s nondiscrimination policy. They subsequently declined to recognize it for the 2019-20 school year. Aided by the Christian Legal Society and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, FCA filed a lawsuit in April 2020 seeking to overturn the school’s ruling. 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.” Students appealed, and in an expedited 2-1 ruling in late August 2022, a 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.
Writing for the majority, U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lee focused on the school’s selective enforcement of its policy. “Other secular student groups maintain facially discriminatory membership criteria but enjoy ASB recognition,” concluded Lee, citing the allowance of a gender-based Senior Women’s Club. “In short, the School District targeted FCA because of its religious-based views about marriage and sexuality, and not merely because of its alleged violation of non-discrimination policies.”
Even though the appeals court directed the school to recognize FCA and allow students to meet, the controversy did not end, Becket counsel Daniel Blomberg told me. School officials complied, approved FCA’s request for official recognition but then refused to recognize any other student clubs throughout the district. Rather than meet and be subject to harassment by other students and some teachers, FCA students decided to meet privately for prayer.
At this point,there is nothing to prevent the school district from ejecting FCA from campus once again, said Blomberg. “The students are no longer protected from the same school district that has been attacking them for years,” he said. Becket attorneys are evaluating whether to seek protection from the appeals court while the case is reconsidered.
Beyond unequal treatment, Blomberg said even more concerning is the level of hostility exhibited against the students’ religious views—an animus not lost on Circuit Judge Lee, author of the panel’s majority opinion. Lee wrote that the hostility exhibited by school officials resembled that experienced by Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips at the hand of Colorado officials. That treatment resulted in a stinging rebuke by the Supreme Court in a 2018 ruling siding with him.
Blomberg pointed to the school’s recognition of a club run by the Satanic Temple, a group formed to oppose Christian groups like FCA.
“Every single meeting they had, for the course of the year, had protesters outside with signs. Once a student burst into their meeting and began screaming obscenities at them,” he said about the FCA club. “And this was all on the school's watch. There were teachers that were there with the protests. And so what this school has done and what these kids have had to go through, I've seen nothing like nationwide.”
Neither is the opposition in San Jose an outlier. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the California School Boards Association, which represents nearly 700 school boards in the state, sided with the school district. “So this isn’t just a one-off problem,” said Blomberg. “It’s not just this one poor set of kids and one school in California.”
Yet pointing to another friend-of-the-court brief filed by Stanford School of Law professor Michael McConnell, Blomberg was hopeful that the full court would use the opportunity to revisit the ruling to clarify existing law. Citing recent religious liberty court decisions, McConnell writes that the school district ignores a seismic shift in Free Exercise law in recent years.
Oral argument before the full 11-member court is set for the week of March 20 in Pasadena, Calif. School officials have begun approving groups to once again meet on campus but have not yet indicated whether FCA may—at least temporarily—be among them.