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Settlement confirms Fellowship of Christian Athletes students’ right to choose leaders

California school district also agrees to pay nearly $5.9 million in attorneys’ fees and damages

Cleats worn by Cleveland Browns quarterback Case Keenum in support of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Dec. 14, 2020 Associated Press/Photo by Kirk Irwin

Settlement confirms Fellowship of Christian Athletes students’ right to choose leaders

A court settlement left some California taxpayers holding the bill after its school district lost a crusade to dictate who could lead a Fellowship of Christian Athletes high school student group. The decision clarifies protections for religious student groups across the country.

In a settlement entered last week and approved by a federal district court Monday, the San Jose Unified School District agreed to pay $5.8 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses to law firms and $90,000 in damages each to two FCA student leaders. Charlotte TerBest (formerly Klarke) and Elizabeth Sinclair agreed as then high school students to be plaintiffs in what turned out to be four years of hotly contested litigation.

At Pioneer High School in San Jose, Calif., a student-led FCA “huddle” operated without any problem until April 2019, when a teacher at the school, Peter Glasser, posted copies of the Christian nonprofit’s sexual purity statement and statement of faith on his classroom whiteboard. FCA welcomed all students to its meetings but required student leaders to agree to the statements, which contained affirmations that marriage is only between one man and one woman and that it is the only appropriate place for sexual expression.

Glasser rallied students, teachers, and administrators against FCA, ending in the school stripping the club of its official status. That meant it could not book meeting space, advertise in school media, or share in any student activity fundraisers. Yet club members suffered worse: ongoing harassment by some students and even teachers who disrupted meetings.

Danni McConnell, a history teacher, told reporters for the school newspaper that the FCA statement was “a hurtful message and problem.” She urged students to “rally against the issue.”

On more than one occasion, student reporters attended FCA meetings, taking multiple photographs, some from only 5 feet away. A teacher alerted Principal Herb Espiritu to this activity, calling it “intimidating” and “flat-out bullying.” During the 2019-20 school year, protests occurred at every FCA meeting and activity.

FCA National and the two student leaders at Pioneer High sued the school district in April 2020. After a federal district judge sided with the school district, an appeals court panel in August 2022 reversed, ruling that the school district did not fairly apply what it contended was an “all-comers” policy to all student groups.

A full 11-member appeals court broadened the ruling in September 2023, finding that the school district’s application of it anti-discrimination policy unconstitutionally discriminated against FCA. “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,” wrote Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest in a concurring opinion.

In the judgment filed Monday, U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. ordered the school district to grant official student group status to all FCA-affiliated student groups within the district, including the Pioneer High School FCA.

Gilliam also directed the school district to give the groups all of the benefits, rights, and privileges that each group’s school site grants any other non-curriculum related student group. His order bars the school district from penalizing FCA in any way for requiring its leaders to affirm any of its religious beliefs. FCA and the school district agree that the order resolves all matters between them, and that neither will appeal the judgment and order.

In a separate agreement, the parties are more specific about the terms of settlement. It includes requirements that the school modify its policies relating to non-curriculum related groups and instruct school staff on the requirements of the court ruling, First Amendment, and federal Equal Access Act. It states that “no student group, including religious groups, may be denied official recognition or equal access to any status, benefit, right, or privilege because of such group’s leadership requirements”—a win for all student groups.

School administrators will also not allow any protest of FCA groups to occur within 40 feet of the entrance to an FCA meeting and will promptly deal with any disruptive behavior by students entering any meeting.

As part of the settlement, the school district and named school employees were released from further liability.

Brad Jacob, a constitutional law professor at Regent University School of Law, called the consent judgment a “huge victory for liberty for all American students.” He said that ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, religious student groups have been under a cloud.

In Martinez, the court upheld a Hastings College of Law “all-comers” policy that required all student groups to accept all students as members or leaders regardless of their status or beliefs in order to obtain recognition. Since then, religious student groups have been afraid that public schools will either deny their campus existence or force them to accept into leadership individuals who would change or deny their fundamental religious beliefs.

Not any more, said Jacob. “Since religious student groups have the right under the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act to exist on campus, they must also have the right to maintain their religious identity,” said Jacob. He added that that right includes “matters of sexual morality.”

For now at least, FCA’s long battle with the San Jose school district appears over.

Daniel Blomberg is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, one of the law firms representing FCA. “This is a massive win for these brave kids, who persevered through adversity to restore equal access for FCA—and not just FCA, but all student groups that want leaders who support their mission,” he said in a statement provided at WORLD’s request. “Thanks to the courage of several young FCA women, students can freely meet at school without sacrificing basic rights.”

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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