Appeals court rules San Jose school district violated student athletes’ religious freedom

An appellate court found San Jose Unified School District violated the rights of a Christian student athlete club by revoking its status due to its leaders’ affirmation of their faith’s teachings that marriage must be between a man and a woman, in a ruling hailed as a religious freedom victory.

The ruling was based on a lawsuit filed in 2020 by two former Pioneer High School students and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes after the school revoked their club’s status due to its leaders’ faith affirmation, which school officials claimed violated district anti-discrimination policies protecting LGBTQ rights.

“This is a huge win for these brave kids, who persevered through adversity and never took their eyes off the ball: equal access with integrity,” said Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, one of the organizations that represented the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “Today’s ruling ensures that religious students are once again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.”

According to the school district, it is reviewing the court’s decision and weighing its options and next steps.

“While we are disappointed with today’s decision, the San Jose Unified School District respects the judicial system and its essential role in our democracy,” the district said in a statement. “The most important consideration will be how to continue implementing San Jose Unified’s longstanding policy against discrimination in district programs and activities.”

After two of three Ninth Circuit judges ruled against the district in August 2020, San Jose Unified filed an appeal with a full, “en banc” panel of 11 judges on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The court found that San Jose Unified had penalized the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club “based on its religious beliefs” and “treated comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise” in violation of constitutional religious freedom protections in a published opinion Wednesday.

Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote the majority opinion. Chief Judge Mary H. Murguia dissented, and two other judges concurred and partially dissented.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, based in Kansas City, Missouri, promotes faith through sports through “Huddles” or small-group bible studies for coaches and athletes. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who famously broke the major leagues’ color line by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, was one of its founders.

For nearly 20 years, the club had chapters at San Jose Unified schools that were open to all students, regardless of faith. However, as part of a statement of faith, its student leaders must affirm that “sexual intimacy is to be expressed only within the context of marriage” and that “marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”

Peter Glasser, a Pioneer social studies teacher, told his class in April 2019 that he was “deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements.” He complained to the principal, and the school denied the club’s recognition, citing district policy that states that schools “shall be free from discrimination,” including discrimination based on “sexual orientation.”

The club was permitted to continue meeting at the school, but it was no longer listed or included in the yearbook, could not fundraise on campus or use school-sponsored bank accounts, and had no faculty adviser or priority for on-campus meeting space.

However, Glasser and other teachers and students continued their campaign to expel the Christian student club. Students disrupted FCA meetings and harassed its members after the school allowed a Satanic Temple Club to organize and receive student body recognition on campus, which was denied to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In April 2020, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and then-students and club members Charlotte Klarke and Elizabeth Sinclair filed a lawsuit against the school and district, seeking an injunction that would allow the FCA club to continue operating as a recognized club while the case was being reviewed by the courts.

The Christian club appealed after a trial court denied the requested injunction, and the divided three-judge panel ruled in its favor. The district then filed an en banc appeal.

“Under the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion and free speech, the government may not’single out’ religious groups ‘for special disfavor’ when compared to similar secular groups,” the court wrote. “Instead of treating FCA like comparable secular student groups whose membership was limited based on criteria such as gender, race, ethnicity, and gender identity, the District penalized it based on its religious beliefs.”

Murguia argued that the case was moot because Klarke and Sinclair had graduated, but he also questioned the majority’s merits conclusions.

Blomberg stated that Klarke and Sinclair are now in college and will not comment on the ruling in order to avoid public scrutiny. Other students, he says, are preparing to start an FCA chapter at Pioneer.

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