A Christian student athletic club in California was denigrated, protested, then thrown off campus in 2019 on account of its traditional views on marriage. When the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and student leaders' requests to have their club reinstated fell on deaf ears, they took legal action with the help of the religious liberty group Becket and the Christian Legal Society.
In a major upset for LGBT activists and other cultural imperialists in the San Jose Unified School District, a federal court delivered the evangelical FCA a decisive win Wednesday, ordering the reinstatement of its chapter at Pioneer High School.
Rigo Lopez, the local FCA leader for Bay Area schools, responded to the victory for religious liberty, stating, "FCA is excited to be able to get back to serving our campuses. ... Our FCA teams have long enjoyed strong relationships with teachers and students in the past, and we are looking forward to that again."
Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said, "This is a huge win for these brave kids, who persevered through adversity and never took their eye off the ball: equal access with integrity."
"Today’s ruling ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California," added Blomberg.
No room for Christian beliefs
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club, founded in 1954, seeks to "lead every coach and athlete into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His church."
Despite meeting at San Jose Unified School District schools in California for over a decade without incident, the group was thrown off campus after a single social studies teacher at Pioneer High School denounced the organization during class time, claiming its views on marriage were "bulls***."
Peter Glasser, the teacher in question, had learned that while all students were welcome to participate in FCA events and to join its ranks, chapter leaders were required to affirm the group's statements of faith and sexual purity, reported the Washington Examiner.
Among the statements of faith, listed on the FCA's website, are the declarations that: the Bible is the word of God; there is "only one God who eternally exists in three persons"; Jesus Christ is God; and "acceptance of Jesus Christ and the corresponding renewal of the Holy Spirit is the only path to salvation."
The sexual purity statement required that leaders affirm that "sexual intimacy is to be expressed only within the context of marriage," defined as "exclusively the union of one man and one woman."
According to court documents, in April 2019, Glasser obtained these statements, posted them on the whiteboard in his first period class, and appended a note to them which read, "I am deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer's campus asks its members to affirm these statements. How do you feel?"
Extra to inviting criticism of Christian students' beliefs by other students, Glasser, who reportedly suggested the FCA's beliefs were tantamount to harassment, pressed principal Herb Espiritu to take action.
A school leadership committee, which included Glasser, met on April 30, 2019, determining the FCA's "pledge" clashed with the "core values" of the high school.
Espiritu brought the decision to the attention of SJUSD administrators, then two days later informed the student leaders of the Pioneer FCA that the district had stripped the group of its approval.
Within weeks, all three FCA student clubs in the district had been labeled as "discriminatory" and similarly booted off campus whilst identitarian groups, LGBT activist groups, and even the Satanic Temple Club remained unscathed, notwithstanding their own dogmatic views and rules.
Battle in the courts
Two students filed a lawsuit in April 2020, seeking to restore the club's equal access to meet on campus. A district court shut them down. They nevertheless persevered and appealed the decision.
On Aug. 29, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in the Christian students' favor, concluding that the "plaintiffs [were] likely to succeed on their Free Exercise claims alleging that the defendants have selectively enforced their non-discrimination polices."
Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit Court reversed the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California's earlier denial of the FCA's motion for a preliminary injunction and directed the district court to order the group's reinstatement.
The San Jose Unified School District did not handle the decision well.
Rather than accept that it could no longer flout the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act by way of discriminating against the FCA's religious leadership standards, it shut down all student groups for the fall 2022 semester and appealed the decision.
Christian virtue prevails
On Jan. 18, 2023, the the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case before a panel of eleven federal judges.
In a 9-2 decision issued Wednesday, the court killed perhaps the SJUSD's last hope of boxing out the Christian group, ruling that the FCA and other such clubs do not have to surrender on matters of faith to enjoy equal access to campus.
"The District, rather than treating (the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) like comparable secular student groups whose membership was limited based on criteria including sex, race, ethnicity and gender identity, penalized it based on its religious beliefs," said the ruling.
The court stressed that "[i]ndividual preferences based on certain characteristics and criteria serve important purposes for these groups"; that just as the "Senior Women club" can have all-female members and various honor clubs can require benchmarks pertaining to members' moral character, "it makes equal sense that a religious group be allowed to require that its leaders agree with the group's most fundamental beliefs."
In her opinion, Judge Consuelo María Callahan noted that while anti-discrimination policies "serve worthy causes ... those policies may not themselves be utilized in a manner that transgresses or supersedes the government's constitutional commitment to be steadfastly neutral to religion."
Accordingly, "[u]nder the First Amendment's protection of free exercise of religion and free speech, the government may not 'single out' religious groups 'for special disfavor' compared to similar secular groups," wrote Callahan.
Judge Danielle J. Forrest called the SJUSD's treatment of FCA student members "shocking and fundamentally at odds with bedrock principles that have guided our Republic since the beginning."
Concerning the FCA's win Wednesday, Steve McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said, "Public schools should respect every student's religious beliefs and treat every student with dignity. ... We are grateful the court has reaffirmed this foundational right of every student."
2022 FCA Presentationyoutu.be
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