Tuesday, August 30, 2022

9th Circuit: High School Must Recognize Fellowship of Christian Athletes

In Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District Board of Education, (9th Cir., Aug. 29. 2022), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ordered reinstatement of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as an official student club at San Jose high schools.  The majority said in part:

This 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 Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) requires students serving in leadership roles to abide by a Statement of Faith, which includes the belief that sexual relations should be limited within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman. The San Jose Unified School District ... revoked FCA’s status as an official student club at its high schools, claiming that FCA’s religious pledge requirement violates the School District’s non-discrimination policy.

... Under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral when it comes to religion: It cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones. But the School District did just that.

The School District engaged in selective enforcement of its own non-discrimination policy, penalizing FCA while looking the other way with other student groups. 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.

Judge Lee filed a concurring opinion, saying in part:

One schoolteacher called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ (FCA) beliefs “bullshit” and sought to ban it from campus. Another described evangelical Christians as “charlatans” who perpetuate “darkness” and “ignorance.”...

This is not, to put it mildly, neutral treatment of religion. More than a whiff, a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs pervades the Pioneer High School campus. I write separately to highlight the depth of that animus and explain why it is yet another reason why the School District violated the Free Exercise Clause.

Judge Christen dissented, saying in part:

My colleagues are correct that the competing values at issue in this case are cherished by our nation and enshrined in our Constitution. The plaintiffs will surely have their day in court for their claims of past harm. Once they do, the court will have to consider both the plaintiffs’ rights and the rights of those they would exclude. Notably, the majority offers no limiting principle to the permission it grants allowing one club to discriminate. In the meantime, we are not free to contort our standing jurisprudence in order to prematurely reach the merits and we ought not do so in a case of this magnitude before the record has been developed and tested.