9th Circuit Reinstates High School Access for Fellowship of Christian Athletes

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday that a San Jose, California school district must recognize the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and allow the group to meet and hold events on the district’s high school campuses. 

School district officials in San Jose had denied equal access to FCA clubs at local high schools because the Christian clubs ask their leaders to embrace core Christian beliefs.

As CBN News reported, a lower court had sided with the district. But now the nation’s largest federal appeals court has fully overturned that ruling, determining that the school district infringed on FCA’s constitutional rights.

The school district had argued that FCA was discriminating against non-Christians.

In a previous statement, the school district had said “Our long-standing policy against discrimination in district programs and activities is fully consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

But the full panel of the Ninth Circuit said it was the school district that did the discriminating.

In Wednesday’s 134-page ruling in Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit said the FCA and similar religious clubs do not have to give up their faith to have equal access to campus. 

The appeals court ruled that “anti-discrimination laws and the protections of the Constitution work in tandem to protect minority views in the face of dominant public opinion,” and that the District had regrettably used a discriminatory “double standard” against FCA that failed to “treat FCA like comparable secular groups” and instead “penalized it based on its religious beliefs.” 

The court explained that, just as it makes sense that the “Senior Women club” would have all-female members, or that honors clubs would set standards of “good moral character” for their members, “it makes equal sense that a religious group be allowed to require that its leaders agree with the group’s most fundamental beliefs.” 

The appellate court concluded that “the First Amendment ‘counsel{s} mutual respect and tolerance for religious and non-religious views alike,'” requiring that FCA must be treated equally once again. 

The FCA is represented by attorneys with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, and Christopher Schweickert of Seto Wood & Schweickert LLP

“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,” Becket Vice President and Senior Counsel Daniel Blomberg said in a press release. “Today’s ruling ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.”  

“Public schools should respect every student’s religious beliefs and treat every student with dignity,” said Steve McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law & Religious Freedom. “We are grateful the court has reaffirmed this foundational right of every student.” 

The FCA is a student religious organization whose policies for its members include a “sexual purity statement,” declaring that “the biblical description of marriage is one man and one woman in a lifelong commitment.” 

The San Jose Unified School District withdrew its recognition of the group in 2019 and says it grants such status only to organizations whose membership is open to all students. The San Francisco Chronicle claims the FCA group was still allowed to meet on campus but could no longer deposit funds in a school bank account or be listed in school yearbooks, a status granted only to officially recognized student organizations.

According to Becket, local Fellowship of Christian Athletes clubs had served students in San Jose high schools for over a decade. They held regular meetings open to all students and supported the local community by leading sports camps and donating sports equipment to underserved groups. But Becket reports, that after years of strong relationships with local school leaders, FCA clubs were removed from San Jose high schools in 2019 and faced harassment and protests simply because the clubs asked their student leaders to agree with their faith. 

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The Ninth Circuit’s ruling ensures FCA will once again be treated equally and can fully return to campus for prayer, service, and ministry, the nonprofit religious rights law firm said. 

Based in Kansas City, Missouri, the FCA is a Christian religious ministry with more than 7,000 student chapters at schools and colleges nationwide. 

CBN News reached out to the San Jose Unified School District for comment. In an emailed statement, the district said, “While we are disappointed in today’s decision, the San José Unified School District respects the judicial system and its essential role in our democracy. We are reviewing the court’s opinion, assessing options, and considering next steps. The most important consideration will be how to continue to implement San José Unified’s long-standing policy against discrimination in district programs and activities.”

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