Court Rules California District Can’t Bar Christian Athletic Club From Schools

Rigo Lopez, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader for Bay Area schools, applauded the ruling in a statement.

Christian athletes pray.
Christian athletes pray. (photo: Shutterstock)

A panel of judges ruled that a California school district must allow a Christian athletic club to return to public schools after the district banned the group over its adherence to Christian teachings on sexuality.

In 2019, the San Jose Unified School District rescinded its recognition of student groups affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes because the clubs require members to affirm a statement of faith that declares sexual activity is only permissible between a man and a woman within a marriage. The district claimed this mandatory affirmation discriminated against LGBTQ people.

Even though affiliated clubs had operated in the school district for more than a decade, each club was removed from schools in the district. A lower court sided with the school district, but that decision was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, which ensured that the clubs can operate in the public schools again. 

According to the ruling, the San Jose Unified School District engaged in a “double standard” when it “penalized [the Fellowship of Christian Athletes] based on its religious beliefs.” 

The opinion found that the district failed to treat Fellowship of Christian Athletes “like comparable secular student groups whose membership was limited based on criteria including sex, race, ethnicity, and gender identity.” The opinion found that “the Constitution prohibits such a double standard.”

The appellate court ruling grants Fellowship of Christian Athletes temporary relief, which allows it to have equal access to the public schools while the litigation is settled. The ruling does not settle the constitutionality of the issue in the ongoing litigation but indicates that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is likely to succeed in its claims against the district.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Danielle Forrest said that the district discriminated against Christians under the guise of fighting against discrimination. 

“The height of irony is that the district excluded [the Fellowship of Christian Athletes] students from fully participating in the [Associated Student Body] program in the name of preventing discrimination to purportedly ensure that all students feel welcome,” the opinion read. “In doing so, the district selectively enforced its nondiscrimination policy to benefit viewpoints that it favors to the detriment of viewpoints that it disfavors.” 

Rigo Lopez, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader for Bay Area schools, applauded the ruling in a statement. 

“[Fellowship of Christian Athletes] is excited to be able to get back to serving our campuses,” Lopez said. “Our FCA teams have long enjoyed strong relationships with teachers and students in the past, and we are looking forward to that again.”

The fellowship received representation from Becket, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in religious-freedom cases. Daniel Blomberg, a vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement that the ruling ensures equal treatment for religious students. 

“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. “Today’s ruling ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.”

The appellate court has jurisdiction over the entirety of California and eight other states: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

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