In a major victory for religious freedom, America’s biggest federal appeals court has ruled that Christian student clubs can freely gather and hold events at public high schools. Eleven judges agreed that they do not have to give up their faith to have equal access to campuses.
The case concerned the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) clubs that had served San Jose students for ten years. They were open to all students and supported the community by offering sports camps and donating sports equipment.
The clubs were forced out in 2019 amid harassment and protests over student leaders having to sign faith commitments which specifically related to their views on marriage. The San Jose Unified School District withdrew its recognition of the FCA after a teacher complained that the club was sharing its faith on campus, which included the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
The FCA filed a lawsuit with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, but faced several defeats in court, until the full bench of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the district had violated the FCA’s rights to freedom of speech and religion under the First Amendment of the US Constitution and reversed a previous decision to deny FCA’s request for an injunction.
“The San Jose District, rather than treating FCA like comparable secular student groups whose membership was limited based on criteria including sex, race, ethnicity, and gender identity, penalised it, based on its religious beliefs. Because the Constitution prohibits such a double standard — even in the absence of any motive to do so — we reverse the district court’s denial of FCA’s motion for a preliminary injunction,” the ruling read.
“The FCA requires students who volunteer with the club in a “leadership capacity” to sign a statement of faith that includes the belief that “sexual intimacy is designed only to be expressed within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman” and that they will follow the club’s policy on this issue,” it continued, saying that the lower court’s decision was “flawed” since it was trying to hold the FCA to a higher standard than it had for the past two decades.
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 San Jose District had “regrettably” used a discriminatory “double standard” against FCA that failed to “treat FCA like comparable secular groups and instead penalised it based on its religious beliefs.”
The court explained that, just as it makes sense that a Senior Womens club would have all-female members, or that Honours 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 Court concluded that “the First Amendment counsels mutual respect and tolerance for religious and non-religious views alike,” requiring that FCA must be treated equally once again.
Lawyers from Becket said the decision means the clubs can return to campus for prayer, service, and ministry. Vice president and senior counsel Daneil Blomberg 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. This 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.”