The story at a glance
- A federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) must be recognized by the San Jose Unified School District as an official student body.
- The school district revoked the organization’s recognition in 2020 over concerns that declarations of faith and “sexual purity” required to be signed by student leaders violated the district’s non-discrimination policy.
- FCA members can only hold leadership positions if they certify their belief in a number of Christian values, including that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.
A federal appeals court ruled Monday that a Northern California school district must formally recognize a religious student group that requires its leaders to abide by a statement of faith and interpretation of “sexual purity” that includes an understanding of marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Monday, in a 2-1 decision, said the San Jose Unified School District likely violated the constitutional rights of three Fellowship chapters of Christian Athletes (FCA) when it revoked the group’s recognition as an official club in 2020.
Months earlier in 2019, a teacher at one of the district’s high schools had raised concerns about the group after discovering that its student leaders had been forced to sign a statement certifying that they believed sex should only exist between married and heterosexual couples.
The teacher argued in messages sent to the school’s principal that the group’s views violated the rights of students, faculty and members of the LGBTQ+ community to ‘feel safe and empowered on their own campus’ , according to court documents.
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FCA leaders are also required to believe that an individual’s gender identity is assigned by God at birth.
The San Jose Unified School District later revoked FCA Associate Student Body (ASB) recognition, concluding that the group’s positions on sex and gender violate the district’s non-discrimination policy.
Only organizations recognized by the ASB are included in school directories, have an official faculty advisor, and receive priority access to on-campus meeting spaces.
All students, regardless of religion or any other characteristic, are welcome to become FCA members and participate in FCA events, according to court documents, but members who wish to take on a leadership role must personally affirm the group’s “statement of faith” and uphold its standard of “sexual purity”.
“The Bible teaches that the proper venue for sexual expression is in the context of a marital relationship,” reads the FCA’s “Statement of Sexual Purity.” “The biblical description of marriage is a man and a woman in a lifelong commitment.”
Following the chapters’ de-recognition, the FCA sued the San Jose Unified School District for religious discrimination, seeking a preliminary injunction that would temporarily prevent the district from revoking its ASB status.
On Monday, the appeals court ordered that FCA be reinstated as the official club for the current school year while litigation continues in the lower district court.
Trump-appointed Judge Kenneth Kiyul Lee wrote for the majority that the case pitted “two competing values that we cherish as a nation: the principle of non-discrimination on the one hand, and the protection of the First Amendment of the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech on the other hand.
However, Lee argued, the school district “cannot—and does not—advance its interest in nondiscrimination by discriminating.”
According to Lee, the school district did not apply its non-discrimination policy in the same way when it revoked FCA recognition, and student groups like the Senior Women’s Club remain recognized despite the exclusion of male students on purpose.
“The club’s constitution limits membership based on gender identity,” Lee wrote. “Even though the Senior Women’s Club explicitly stated its intention to exclude men from membership…the school district still granted it ASB recognition. This alone shows selective application.
The San Jose Unified School District said it is reviewing the court’s opinion and will determine its next steps “as soon as possible,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
He said the most important consideration will be how to continue implementing his non-discrimination policies.