In an important ruling for religious freedom, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the San Jose Unified School District (District) in California to re-instate the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as an officially recognized student club.
The case illustrates the increasing tension between Christian beliefs and the LGBT agenda in our nation’s schools, and the importance of the First Amendment in protecting our foundational freedoms.
In a majority opinion written by Judge Kenneth K. Lee, an appointee of President Donald Trump, the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court decision from June, ruling that FCA was entitled to an injunction because it was likely to succeed in its legal claims that the District had violated the club’s First Amendment rights.
FCA had been a recognized club in the District for over two decades when, in 2019, a history teacher at one of its high schools named Peter Glasser learned of the club’s Statement of Faith and its requirement that its leaders abide by it, including biblical beliefs about marriage and human sexuality.
According to Judge Lee, here’s what happened next.
“Peter Glasser was the most forthcoming about his contempt for FCA’s religious beliefs. The day after learning about FCA’s religious-based views on marriage and sexuality, Glasser channeled his inner Martin Luther, pinning the Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement to his classroom whiteboard along with his grievances. But instead of a reformation, Glasser demanded an inquisition.”
And he got one. He was even on the school committee – with the odd name of “Climate Committee” – that addressed the FCA situation and de-recognized the club, ostensibly for not complying with the District’s non-discrimination policy.
He was not alone on the committee in his anti-Christian animus. Again, from Judge Lee:
“Glasser was not the only skeptic. Michelle Bowman also serves on the Climate Committee and as faculty advisor to the Satanic Temple Club. In discussing this lawsuit with a former student, she opined that ‘evangelicals, like FCA, are charlatans and not in the least bit Christian,’ and ‘choose darkness over knowledge and they perpetuate ignorance.’”
It’s no wonder the committee voted to de-recognize FCA. The school’s action was then affirmed by the District and applied district-wide.
The District argued in its defense that its non-discrimination policies apply to all clubs equally, in a “neutral and generally applicable” manner which, according to a prominent U.S. Supreme Court case, typically shields government actions from allegations of religious freedom violations.
The 9th Circuit disagreed, pointing out that other clubs in the District had discriminatory membership requirements such as sex or gender, and were still granted official recognition.
“But the record before us shows that the School District’s non-discrimination policies have been, and continue to be, selectively enforced against FCA,” Judge Lee wrote. “Other secular student groups maintain facially discriminatory membership criteria but enjoy [official] recognition. 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.”
From a decision-making perspective, the 9th Circuit ruling is on solid ground. It follows a number of previous decisions highlighting that government cannot treat religious entities differently than secular ones.
The ruling also underscores the importance of Christians voting. Elections have consequences, especially when it comes to the appointment of federal judges whose constitutional philosophy respects religious freedom. In addition to Judge Lee, the other judge on the three-judge panel who voted in favor of FCA was Judge Danielle Forrest, another Trump appointee. The dissenting judge was Judge Morgan Christen, appointed by President Barack Obama.
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