The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Holds that a Public School Must Reinstate a Religious Club that Required Leaders to Abide by a Statement of Faith
Posted on September 02, 2022
Important Takeaways: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a preliminary injunction to reinstate a religious group at a public school had to be granted. The group required leaders to abide by a Statement of Faith, including the belief that sexual relations should be limited to a marriage between a man and a woman. The school stopped recognizing them as a group saying the statement violated their non-discrimination policy. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held the school was not treating the religious group the same as other groups and therefore had to reinstate them as a recognized school group.
Facts: The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) requires students serving in leadership roles to abide by a Statement of Faith, including 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 (School District) revoked FCA’s status as an official club, claiming this religious pledge requirement violated the School District’s non-discrimination policy. The School District recognizes and supports student organizations through its Associated Student Body (ASB) program. Only recognized clubs get certain benefits like funds, yearbook inclusion, priority to on-campus meeting space, and a faculty advisor.
The club was recognized by the School District from the early 2000s with no issues until the club’s rules, including the Statement of Faith, were given to a teacher and he hung them on his whiteboard and expressed how he was saddened that a club was asking their members to affirm this statement. The teacher was concerned if these views belong on a public high school campus because there could be an implicit message that the school approves of those values. During a meeting of the school’s “Climate Committee,” the principal agreed that the Statement went against the core values of the School District. Two days later, FCA was stripped of its ASB approval. FCA continued to function as a non-recognized group the next school year but the teacher who originally took issue with the group asked if they could be removed altogether for possibly violating the School District’s sexual harassment policy. Other teachers also expressed their concerns that this group was recognized on campus. All of the FCA meetings that year were protested by School District students.
In 2020, the FCA student leaders and FCA National filed a lawsuit against the School District. The district court granted in part the School District’s motion to dismiss. FAC filed an amendment claiming the School District had violated their Equal Access to extracurricular school Clubs under the Equal Access Act, Free Exercise and Association under the First Amendment, and Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. FCA also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asking to be reinstated as an ASB club which was denied by the district court. During this time, the School District wrote a new policy, the All-Comers Policy, requiring that clubs are prohibited from acts of discrimination. The district court determined this policy did not violate the Equal Access Act because it was content-neutral and did not preclude religious speech but only prohibited acts of discrimination.
The 9th Circuit reversed and held that the FCA was only trying to maintain the status quo when asking for injunctive relief to be reinstated, and therefore the district court erred in applying a heightened standard and denying the injunction. The 9th Circuit also held that under the First Amendment, the government must be neutral when it comes to religion so it cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones. The School District here did not do that as they allowed other clubs that limited membership based on gender identity or ethnicity, despite the School District’s policies prohibiting restricted membership. Any restrictions that are not neutral or generally applicable have to meet strict scrutiny, meaning the government must have a compelling state interest and the restrictions must be narrowly tailored to that interest, and that was also not met here. Since the school did not treat similar non-religious groups the same as FCA and therefore FCA would likely succeed on their Free Exercise claims and injunctive relief should have been granted and FCA reinstated.
What this means: All groups recognized by a School District must be treated the same, including being held to the same standards and regulations. Religious groups cannot be treated differently than non-religious groups.
What is the name of the case and where you can read it: Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified Sch. Dist. Bd. Of Educ., 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 29, 2022. Read it here.
As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Megan, Beth, and Kevin by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.