Last Wednesday, a federal judge upheld a California school district’s 2019 decision to withdraw official recognition of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club because it required the club’s leaders to affirm its statement of faith.
For more than a decade, FCA student-run clubs have gathered at Pioneer High School in San Jose to witness, pray, and study the Bible. In May 2019, two weeks after a pioneering teacher criticized the group in his classroom for their beliefs, including their belief in biblical marriage, school officials kicked the club off campus. Eventually, the three San Jose Unified School District FCA student clubs were expelled—allowed to meet but unable to enjoy the same privileges as recognized student groups. Meanwhile, a Satanic Temple student club has received official recognition.
In April 2020, the FCA challenged the school district’s decision in a lawsuit filed in federal court. The department, represented in court by the Center for Law and Religious Freedom and the Becket Fund, argued that the school district’s action violated the Equal Access Act of 1984, a federal law protecting meetings of students and prohibiting schools from prohibiting such gatherings on the basis of religion. , political, philosophical or other speech content. The FCA also argued that the school district’s action violated the students’ constitutional rights to free speech and religious freedom.
In Wednesday’s notice, Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam ruled that the school district’s non-discrimination policy — a policy that would have required the FCA to open up club leadership to students who engage to homosexual behavior – was “neutral in terms of content because it does not prevent religious speech but rather prohibits acts of discrimination.
The judge also found no evidence that other clubs discriminated against, even though they had titles suggesting otherwise, such as Girls Who Code and Big Sister/Little Sister Club. Gilliam admitted there was a “tension” in a senior women’s club’s contradictory statements that “its members are ‘students who are seniors who identify as women’, but also that ‘[a]any student currently enrolled in the school will be eligible for membership. Still, Gilliam found no evidence that the policy had been violated.
This is not the case with FCA. “Require leaders to swear that their religious beliefs are the same as described in the FCA’s Statement of Faith and further require them to comply with the Declaration of Sexual Purity which states that sexual relations may only take place between a married man and woman violates the policy prohibition on ‘Leadership Criteria which excludes any student based on . . . religion . . . [or] sexual orientation,” concluded Gilliam.
This finding appears at odds with federal appeals court rulings last year that upheld the right of the InterVarsity Department of the college campus to limit student leadership of its college scholarship groups to students who accept the Declaration of Faith. of the ministry. A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that the University of Iowa violated InterVarsity’s free speech rights when it delisted the group, causing him to lose access to student activity funds and campus meeting places.
Along with InterVarsity, the court found that the school exempted certain groups – such as fraternities, sororities and a gay affirmation group called LoveWorks – from the non-discrimination policy, but not InterVarsity and other religious groups. On the face of it, the San Jose policy does not exempt any student groups from the non-discrimination policy, but in practice, according to the attorneys, student groups exclude students based on several factors, including GPA and gender.
The school district argues the case resembles the much-criticized 2010 Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which the court upheld an “all-comers” policy at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. A majority opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the Christian Legal Society’s argument that it did not restrict membership based on sexual orientation but based on conduct – having sex outside of marriage biblical – or the belief that such conduct is permissible.
Yet FCA attorneys say the San Jose School District policy is not really an “all comers” policy, but an “all comers, we approve” policy — a policy that violates the First Amendment.
For now, the FCA will remain off the school’s San Jose campuses as an appeal of the decision, filed Monday, continues.