Appeals court grants injunction ordering California school district to reinstate Fellowship of Christian Athletes as official student club

by | Sep 6, 2022

On a 2-1 vote, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling and granted an injunction ordering the San Jose school district to recognize as an official student club the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), despite FCA’s refusal to sign the district’s nondiscrimination pledge.

Although the “case pits two competing values that we cherish as a nation: the principle of non-discrimination on the one hand, and the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion and free speech on the other hand,” the court’s ruling did not privilege religious liberty rights over nondiscrimination concerns generally. Instead, the decision was based primarily on the court’s finding that the school district selectively enforced its own nondiscrimination policy, “penalizing FCA while looking the other way with other secular student groups that maintained facially discriminatory membership criteria.” Here’s an excerpt: 

For example, the School District blessed student clubs whose constitutions limited membership based on gender identity or ethnicity, despite the school’s policies barring such restricted membership. The government cannot set double standards to the detriment of religious groups only.

The school district’s selective enforcement, the court emphasized, suggests that FCA was rejected as a student club not because it violates the nondiscrimination policy but because of its religious views, particularly its religious views regarding same-sex marriage. The majority opinion sums up why that is a likely violation of FCA’s free exercise rights this way:

FCA’s beliefs about marriage and sexuality fall within the ambit of the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court reminded us, “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views.” To be sure, some—maybe even most—people may find such views passé. And we do not minimize the ostracism that gay and lesbian students may endure because of those views. But in our pluralistic society in which people from diverse backgrounds must coexist despite having starkly different worldviews, the Free Exercise Clause requires the government to respect religious beliefs and conduct, even if many people may find such beliefs to not be “acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible.”

A concurring opinion focused on statements made by faculty members, leading the judge to conclude that “a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs pervades the Pioneer High School campus.”

A dissenting judge would have dismissed the case for lack of standing, explaining that FCA failed to provide evidence that a student intends to apply for recognition for the upcoming school year.

The ruling comes just weeks after the oral arguments in the case, reinstating FCA as a recognized student group in time for the new school year. The school district has not announced whether it plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.