Appeals court rules San Jose school district violated student athletes’ religious freedom – The Mercury News

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In a ruling hailed as a religious freedom victory, an appellate court found San Jose Unified School District violated the rights of a Christian student athlete club by revoking its status over its leaders’ affirmation of their faith’s teachings that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
The ruling involved a 2020 lawsuit brought by two former Pioneer High School students and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes after the school revoked their club’s status over its leaders’ faith affirmation, which school officials argued 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 eye 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 groups that represented the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “Today’s ruling ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.”
The school district said that it is reviewing the court’s opinion and assessing its options and next steps.
“While we are disappointed in 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 to implement San Jose Unified’s longstanding policy against discrimination in district programs and activities.”
San Jose Unified had appealed to a full, “en banc” panel of 11 judges on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals after two of three Ninth Circuit judges ruled against the district in August 2020.
In a published opinion Wednesday, 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.
The majority opinion was written by Judge Consuelo M. Callahan. Chief Judge Mary H. Murguia dissented, and two other judges concurred and dissented in part.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, founded in 1954 and based in Kansas City, Missouri, promotes faith through sports with “Huddles” or small-group bible studies for coaches and athletes. Among its founders was Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who had famously broken the major leagues’ color line by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The club had chapters at San Jose Unified schools for almost 20 years, open to all students regardless of their faith. But its student leaders must affirm as part of a statement of faith 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.”
In April 2019, Pioneer social studies teacher Peter Glasser told his class 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 stripped the club of its recognition, citing district policy that schools “shall be free from discrimination” including for “sexual orientation.”
The club was allowed to continue meeting at the school, but without official recognition it no longer was 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.
But Glasser and other teachers and students kept up a campaign to drive the Christian student club out. The school allowed a Satanic Temple Club to organize and receive the student body recognition on campus that was denied to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and students disrupted FCA meetings and harassed its members.

In April 2020, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and then-students and club members Charlotte Klarke and Elizabeth Sinclair sued the school and district, and sought an injunction that would allow the FCA club to operate as a recognized club while courts reviewed the case.
After a trial court rejected the requested injunction, the Christian club appealed and the divided three-judge panel ruled in its favor. The district then appealed to the en banc panel.
“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 court wrote. “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.”
Murguia dissented, arguing the case was moot because Klarke and Sinclair have since graduated, but also questioned the majority’s conclusions on the merits.
Blomberg said that Klarke and Sinclair now are attending college and would not comment on the ruling because they want to avoid publicity. He said other students, however, are preparing to open an FCA chapter at Pioneer.
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