Religious Bigotry Is Alive and Well in US Public Schools

COMMENTARY: Case in point: A California school district removes recognition of Fellowship of Christian Athletes student group due to its statement on marriage.

High school student athletes.
High school student athletes. (photo: Rawpixel / Shutterstock)

Public schools in America are facing a reckoning — and they so richly deserve it. From grotesquely politicized curricula and materials in school libraries to disturbing sexual “counsel” offered without their parents’ knowledge, life is getting more and more confusing for students of our nation’s public schools. 
It’s especially hard for Christians.  

Take, for example, the situation at a school district in Northern California. In 2019, the San Jose Unified School District in California stripped the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) of official recognition as a student group after two decades.  

FCA is a Christian religious ministry with more than 7,000 student chapters at colleges, high schools and middle schools across the country. While all students are welcome to join FCA and participate in FCA events regardless of their religion, members who want to serve as leaders must affirm FCA’s “Statement of Faith,” which includes a provision that “sexual intimacy is to be expressed within the confines of marriage” and that “marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.” 

Sexual restraint and traditional sexual ethics aren’t fashionable, to put it mildly, among high-school students or their teachers in the 21st century. So this pledge — which reflects the teaching of the Catholic Church and those of most Protestant churches until recently — should be welcomed.  

But we are living in strange times. Teachers and administrators at Pioneer High School didn’t value this countercultural stance. The head of the Social Studies Department at Pioneer High School in San Jose seems to have started things going. He hung the FCA “Statement of Faith” on his classroom whiteboard and wrote that he was “deeply saddened” that a student club at the school “asks its members to affirm these statements.” He failed to acknowledge that the statement was only signed by FCA officers — two of whom were students in his class. He also wrote to Pioneer High’s principal, urging swift retaliation: “Attacking these views is the only way to make a better campus.”  

He suggested the following statement be issued: 

“I am an adult on your campus, and these views are bulls**t to me. They have no validity. It’s not a choice, and it’s not a sin. I’m not willing to be an enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore. LGBTQ+ kids, you deserve to have your dignity defended by the adults around you.” 


Another teacher at Pioneer High sent an email to her students describing evangelical Christians as “charlatans” who perpetuate “darkness” and “ignorance.” (Imagine if they'd said that about Muslims with similar views.) Both teachers, along with Pioneer High’s principal, were part of Pioneer High’s “Climate Committee” (which appears to operate, at least in this case, as the school’s “progressive thought police”).  

The principal later wrote to district officials urging them to derecognize FCA, claiming its requirements for leaders go “against the core values” of inclusiveness and open-mindedness” at Pioneer High. 

Satisfying this demand, district officials derecognized FCA, concluding that the student group violated the district’s “Non-Discrimination Policy” because “a student could not be an officer of this club if they were homosexual.” Never before had the school district withdrawn official recognition to a student group. Other clubs with restrictive membership — such as Big Sisters/Little Sisters and Girls Who Code — continue at district schools despite limiting membership to students who “identify” as female. 

Having lost official recognition as a club, students continued to gather for FCA meetings at Pioneer High during the 2019-2020 school year. Two faculty sponsors for the Gay-Straight Alliance — an officially recognized student group — joined students to harass them in order to “create change” on campus. At the same time, a new student club formed to mock FCA was recognized. Its name: the Satanic Temple Club.  

Enough was enough. In April 2020, two Pioneer High FCA student leaders, along with FCA National and Pioneer High School FCA, filed a federal lawsuit claiming violations of the First Amendment’s free-exercise guarantee and asked for a court order to reinstate FCA as a student club at San Jose schools. A district court denied FCA’s request to reinstate its official recognition, writing that FCA failed to show that the “facts and law clearly favor” their position.  

Two judges of a three-judge 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel disagreed.  

“Under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral when it comes to religion. It cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones. But the School District did just that,” wrote Judge Kenneth Lee for the majority. Lee also wrote separately to “highlight the depth of animus” against the students’ religious beliefs.  

The dissenting judge, Obama-appointee Morgan Christen, wrote that the majority “accepts counsel’s unsupported assurances that a student intends to apply for [recognition] status for the 2022-23 school year.” Without more concrete proof, she argued, the appeal should be dismissed.  

On Jan. 18, a majority of the 9th Circuit’s active judges voted in favor of rehearing the case en banc (meaning for this circuit that 11 randomly selected judges on the court will sit and rehear the case to determine whether the three-judge panel ruled correctly or not). The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is the largest federal intermediate court, with 29 authorized judicial spots. Its decisions bind lower federal courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state, and the territorial courts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. This particular court of appeals, it must be noted, is notoriously progressive-leaning and has become even more so with the addition of six judges appointed by President Joe Biden. 

Oral argument by the 9th Circuit sitting en banc will be heard on March 30. Meanwhile, sit back and consider what has happened at Pioneer High School, and ask yourself: How did this sinister religious bigotry and intolerance become so embedded in American schools? And what can we do to fight it?