Religious Law

School must recognize Christian student club with anti-same-sex-marriage affirmation, en banc appeals court says

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The front entrance to Gunderson High School in the San Jose Unified School District in Santa Clara County, California, in May 2005. Photo by Bahn Mi of the Schoolwatch Programme, CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

An en banc federal appeals court has ordered a California school district to reinstate a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club that was not recognized because of its required anti-same-sex-marriage affirmation for student leaders.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco ruled for the club in a Sept. 13 en banc opinion, report Reuters and the Deseret News. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented the club, according to a Sept. 13 press release.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes requires student leaders to affirm a statement of faith and sexual purity that says, in part, “We believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”

The San Jose Unified School District in Santa Clara County, California, revoked recognition of the club because it did not comply with the district’s nondiscrimination policies. The club was allowed, however, to remain on campus as a “student interest group.”

The school district later adopted a new “All-Comers Policy” that requires clubs to allow all students to become a member or a leader “regardless of his or her status or beliefs.” The policy allowed clubs to limit membership or leadership, however, based on criteria that include gender identity, age, political affiliation or “good moral character.”

In her majority opinion, Judge Consuelo M. Callahan said the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had shown that its free exercise claims would likely succeed.

“While it cannot be overstated that anti-discrimination policies certainly serve worthy causes—particularly within the context of a school setting where students are often finding themselves—those policies may not themselves be utilized in a manner that transgresses or supersedes the government’s constitutional commitment to be steadfastly neutral to religion,” Callahan said.

Rather than treating the Christian club like secular student groups granted exceptions, the school district “penalized it based on its religious beliefs,” Callahan wrote.

The Senior Women club, for example, was approved, even though it was open only to seniors who identify as female. The Girls’ Circle was also allowed to admit only female-identifying students. And the South Asian Heritage club said it would “prioritize” acceptance of South Asian members.

Callahan also said “religious animus infects” the school district’s decision-making.

“The hostility here is directed not at adult professionals but at teenage students,” Callahan wrote. “Students were told—in front of their peers—that the views embodied in their statement of faith were objectionable and hurtful and had no rightful place on campus.”

The school principal told the student newspaper that the views of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes were “of a discriminatory nature.” Members of a committee of administrators and department heads called the club’s beliefs “bulls- - -” and deemed the club “charlatans” who “forget what tolerance means.”

Callahan is an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

Daniel Blomberg, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, commented in the press release.

“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,” Blomberg said. The ruling “ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.”

The school district said it was assessing its options, according to Reuters.

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