A federal judge has refused to order a school district in San Jose, California, to reinstate a student club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), to official recognition after complaints from a high school teacher about the club’s Christian values started a chain of events that resulted in the revocation of its status district wide.
United States District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam, Jr., appointed to the federal bench in 2014 by President Barack Obama, issued a ruling on June 1 denying FCA’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have restored FCA’s status as an approved club in the San Jose Unified School District while litigation proceeds over FCA’s claim that its federal rights were violated.
The controversy began during the 2018-19 school year, when officially recognized FCA clubs were meeting at three district high schools. FCA’s purpose for meeting is to engage in religious speech, study the Bible, encourage and support one another, and pray. FCA students, mostly athletes, also participate in service projects in their communities.
FCA allows anyone in the school to become a member but requires its student leaders to agree to live in accordance with FCA’s core religious beliefs and religious standards as expressed in the Student Leadership Application and FCA’s Statement of Faith. You won’t be surprised to hear that FCA’s Statement of Faith includes a “Purity Statement” that affirms the Bible’s teachings about marriage and sexuality.
That was too much for one teacher to handle, and the ridicule, harassment and complaints that followed from that teacher’s religious hostility led to the district revoking FCA’s official status.
In April 2019, a history teacher at Pioneer High School in the San Jose Unified School District obtained a copy of FCA’s Purity Statement and posted it on his classroom whiteboard, accompanied by the written comment, “I am deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements. How do you feel?”
The teacher left the message up for a week. Students at the school pressured district officials to derecognize the club. At the same time, the school recognized a Satanic Temple Club, whose members disrupted FCA meetings with the acquiescence of the school administration, forcing FCA to cancel one of its meetings. Bowing to the hecklers, the school district revoked FCA’s official status.
When the district revoked FCA’s official status, it claimed FCA violated the district’s nondiscrimination policy, which includes such protected categories as: gender, gender identity and expression, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, immigration status, ethnic group, pregnancy, marital or parental status, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or the perception of one or more of such characteristics.
Of course, FCA allows anyone to come to its meetings and become a member. Its Purity Statement and Statement of Faith apply only to its leadership.
Furthermore, according to FCA, the district allows other clubs to restrict leadership based on classifications of sex, national origin and other protected characteristics, so the policy was not being applied evenhandedly.
It applied only to the Christian group.
That, according to a letter to the school district from FCA’s attorneys at the Christian Legal Society and the law firm of Seto, Wood & Schweickert LLP, violated the federal Equal Access Act as well as the First Amendment. The school district disagreed, prompting FCA to sue it.
Judge Gilliam seems to think the school district’s treatment of FCA is in line with previous decisions from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes California. But other federal courts, such as the 8th Circuit, have penalized schools for treating Christian clubs differently than secular clubs.
Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled just last year in Fulton v. Philadelphia and Tandon v. Newsom that if a law or rule is imposed on religious entities while similarly situated secular entities are exempt, the law violates the First Amendment.
This case is headed for the 9th Circuit, and hopefully that appeals court reverses Judge Gilliam. If FCA doesn’t get some relief from that court, the case could end up at the Supreme Court, since Gilliam’s ruling puts it squarely at odds with the high court’s recent treatment of religious freedom.
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