California school district can’t ban Christian club opposed to same-sex marriage, court rules

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The United States Court of Appeals James R. Browning building, home of the 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals, is pictured in San Francisco, California February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Noah Berger

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  • 9th Circuit Rules San Jose District Violated Christian Student Club Rights
  • The district took issue with the group’s anti-gay marriage stance

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court divided on Monday ruled that a school district in San Jose, Calif., cannot refuse to officially recognize a group of Christian students because of a religious pledge that disavows gay marriage that it demanded club leaders sign.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that the district violated the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ rights under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it revoked its status as an official secondary school student club.

FCA is a Christian church ministry with more than 7,000 student chapters in schools and colleges nationwide, including since the early 2000s, three schools in the San Jose Unified School District.

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FCA and two students sued after the district in 2019 revoked its official club status, a status that gave it recruiting and fundraising benefits and access to faculty advisors and priority to meeting spaces on campus.

The district cited a declaration of faith that its leaders must sign which included the belief that sexual relations should be limited to marriage, which is “the union of a man and a woman”.

The district concluded that the statement violated a non-discrimination policy because gay students could not be club officers.

But U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lee, writing for the majority, said the district enforced that policy selectively and allowed other lay student groups to maintain discriminatory membership criteria, such as reserved clubs. to girls who forbid boys.

Lee said that as a result, the FCA was likely to succeed in establishing the school, violated U.S. Constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion and free speech, and that a trial judge found him wrongfully denied a preliminary injunction.

“Under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral in matters of religion: it cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular groups,” Lee wrote. “But the school district did just that.”

Lee was joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest, another appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump.

U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen, appointed by former Democratic President Barack Obama, dissented, saying that given the lack of evidence any student would apply for FCA recognition this school year, the plaintiffs had no no standing to seek an injunction.

Daniel Blomberg, FCA and student attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement that their decision “ends this discrimination and ensures that FCA students are treated fairly and equitably.”

Altshuler Berzon District Attorney Stacey Leyton did not respond to a request for comment.

The case is Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-15827.

For the Christian Athlete Community: Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Religious Freedom Fund

For San Jose Unified School District: Stacey Leyton of Altshuler Berzon

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