Appeals court finds Christian student athlete group should be reinstated as public school club

The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, home of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, is pictured in a file photo. The court ruled Sept. 13, 2023, that Fellowship of Christian Athletes student clubs can freely gather and hold events on public high school campuses. (OSV News photo/Noah Berger, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- A federal appeals court on Sept. 13 found that a public school district in California must reinstate a Christian student group. The club asks its leaders to embrace their core religious beliefs, and the district alleged it discriminated against LGBTQ+ students.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 9-2 decision that the San Jose Unified School District likely violated the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' First Amendment right to free exercise of religion when it revoked its status as a recognized high school student club.

"Anti-discrimination laws undeniably serve valuable interests rooted in equality, justice, and fairness," Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote for the court.

"And in a pluralistic society, these laws foster worthy goals such as inclusion and belonging," Callahan wrote. "The Constitution also protects the right for minorities and majorities alike to hold certain views and to associate with people who share their same values. Often, anti-discrimination laws and the protections of the Constitution work in tandem to protect minority views in the face of dominant public opinions. However, this appeal presents a situation in which the two regrettably clash."

"The District, rather than treating FCA 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," the ruling continued, directing the club to be reinstated.

According to court documents, as part of FCA's Christian Character and Mission requirements, student leaders must also conform to FCA's Sexual Purity Statement, which states that "God desires His children to lead pure lives of holiness" and that "the appropriate place for sexual expression is in the context of a marriage relationship. The biblical description of marriage is one man and one woman in a lifelong commitment."

A lower court previously found the requirement discriminated against LGBTQ+ students, which the appeals court overturned.

Rigo Lopez, the local FCA leader for Bay Area schools, said in a Sept. 13 statement the group 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," Lopez said.

Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, the public interest firm that helped represent FCA, called the ruling "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," Blomberg said.

The school district said in a statement that it was disappointed by the ruling and would assess its next steps.



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