California school district must reinstate Christian club, court rules – Reuters

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The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building, home of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is pictured in San Francisco, California. REUTERS/Noah Berger Acquire Licensing Rights
Sept 13 (Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Wednesday ordered a public school district in San Jose, California, to reinstate a Christian student group, which the district said discriminated against LGBTQ students with its restrictions on who could serve as club leaders.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a 9-2 vote ruled that the district likely violated the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' right to free exercise of religion under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by revoking its status as an official high school student club.
While the San Francisco-based appeals court is considered one of the most liberal-leaning federal appeals courts, the en banc panel's majority was comprised entirely of judges appointed by Republican presidents.
U.S. Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan, an appointee of former Republican President George W. Bush, wrote that the San Jose Unified School District had wrongly penalized the Christian student group based on its religious beliefs under its non-discrimination policies.
He said the district had "selectively enforced its nondiscrimination policy to benefit viewpoints that it favors" and treated the group differently than secular groups whose membership was limited based on sex, race, ethnicity and gender identity.
While anti-discrimination policies "certainly serve worthy causes," they cannot be used in a manner that "transgresses or supersedes the government's constitutional commitment to be steadfastly neutral to religion," Callahan wrote for the majority.
Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, in a dissenting opinion called it a "sweeping opinion with no defined limiting principle."
Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for the club at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a statement said the ruling "ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California."
The school district in a statement said it was assessing its options, adding the "most important" consideration was how to continue to implement its anti-discrimination policy.
The student group is part of a Christian religious ministry with more than 7,000 student chapters at schools and colleges nationwide, including since the early 2000s three schools within the San Jose Unified School District.
The group and two students sued after the district in 2019 revoked its status as an official club, a status that gave it recruitment and fundraising benefits, access to faculty advisors and priority to on-campus meeting space.
The district said a statement that the group asked club leaders to sign affirming the belief that sex should occur only in a marriage between a man and a woman violated the district's non-discrimination policy by barring gay students from being club officers.
While a lower-court judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction, a 9th Circuit panel on a 2-1 vote in August 2022 sided with the club. The 9th Circuit in January vacated that decision and elected to have an 11-judge panel rehear the case.
The case is Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District Board of Education, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-15827.
For Fellowship of Christian Athletes: Daniel Blomberg of Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
For San Jose Unified School District: Stacey Leyton of Altshuler Berzon
Read more:
Court to reconsider if California school district must recognize Christian club
Calif. school district can't bar Christian club opposed to gay marriage, court rules
Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Thomson Reuters
Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.
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