Appeals Court restores equal access to faith-based student clubs

PASADENA, CA – The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that California’s San Jose Unified School District wrongly denied official on-campus status to Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ (FCA) student clubs because of their core religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality. While FCA clubs welcome everyone, school district officials removed the clubs from all its high schools in 2019 claiming the FCA violated the district’s non-discrimination policies for requiring students interested in leadership positions to affirm “that sexual relations should be within the confines of a marriage between a man and a woman.”

The Ninth Circuit issued an en banc ruling of all 11 of its federal appellate judges. The judges voted 9-2 that the school district “likely” violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause by treating the FCA clubs differently than other student organizations due to the faith-based requirements for their student leaders.

In 2022, the Ninth Circuit had already ruled 2-1 in favor of FCA, but the San Jose Unified School District asked the full Court to rehear the case to give all 11 judges the chance to weigh in on the matter. The full panel affirmed the Court’s previous decision and overturned a lower court ruling that had blocked the clubs from meeting on campus. 

Authoring the majority opinion, Judge Consuelo Callahan noted that while anti-discrimination policies can “serve worthy causes,” they then must not overstep “the government’s constitutional commitment to be steadfastly neutral to religion.”

Judge Callahan wrote, “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’ compared to similar secular groups…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.”

Judge Callahan explained that the school district allowed the “Girls’ Circle” to exclude members of the opposite gender and other clubs like the honors club to set certain “good moral character” standards of their members. Therefore, Judge Callahan noted “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 emphasized the U.S. Constitution prohibits such double standards regarding discrimination. 

During the litigation, one FCA club at Pioneer High School continued to meet on campus in an unofficial status. According to the Ninth Circuit ruling, school officials showed overt hostility toward this club. 

The Court stated teachers deemed the group to be without “validity” while disparaging them as “charlatans” perpetuating “darkness” and “ignorance.” Even the school’s principal in the school’s newspaper stated that “FCA’s views were ‘of a discriminatory nature.’”

The Court concluded that the First Amendment advises “mutual respect and tolerance for religious and non-religious views alike.”

Similar to FCA, Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is an international non-profit ministry devoted to organizing after school clubs and has also faced viewpoint discrimination. Liberty Counsel has represented 200 of CEF’s Good News Clubs who have been denied equal access to school facilities based on their religious viewpoints. Liberty Counsel has never lost a case involving the Good News Clubs. 

Most recently in July 2023, CEF Rhode Island and its Good News Clubs prevailed in Liberty Counsel’s lawsuit against the Providence Public School District which repeatedly ignored CEF’s applications to host Good News Clubs on its campuses.  A federal district court ruled the school district discriminated against CEF by not allowing the Good News Clubs while allowing other clubs to meet. As a result of the victory, the Providence Public School District is permanently mandated to treat the Good News Clubs “on an equal basis with similarly situated organizations, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Girls on the Run.” The Court declared that Christian clubs are entitled to equal access “on the same terms” as other after-school clubs.

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “This decision by the Ninth Circuit affirms that religious groups are not to be treated differently than secular groups. The law is clear that equal access means equal treatment, and all students, religious and non-religious alike, should be treated fairly.”

[Rights on Trial features Liberty Counsel’s reports of legal challenges to citizens’ constitutional rights.]