A federal appeals court in San Jose, California, has issued an order requiring a public school district to restore the status of a Christian student group. The district had alleged that the club discriminated against LGBTQ students due to its leadership restrictions.
In a 9-2 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the district infringed upon the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ religious freedom, protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, when it revoked the group’s recognition as an official high school student club.
The group filed a lawsuit after the district removed its official club status in 2019. This status provided benefits such as recruitment and fundraising support, access to faculty advisors, and priority access to on-campus meeting spaces.
In response, the district argued that the group’s requirement for club leaders to affirm the belief that sexual relations should only take place within a marriage between a man and a woman violated the district’s non-discrimination policy, as it prevented gay students from holding leadership positions in the club.
U.S. Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan, who was nominated to the court by former President George W. Bush, authored the opinion, stating that the San Jose Unified School District had unjustly taken action against the Christian student group due to its religious convictions, which she deemed inconsistent with the district’s non-discrimination policies.
Callahan said the school district “selectively enforced its nondiscrimination policy to benefit viewpoints that it favors” and treated the group differently compared to secular organizations that imposed membership restrictions based on factors such as sex, race, ethnicity, and gender identity.
She also said that while anti-discrimination rules “certainly serve worthy causes,” they cannot be enforced to “transgresses or supersedes the government’s constitutional commitment to be steadfastly neutral to religion.”
Callahan went on to note that “religious animus infects” the decision-making of the district.
“The hostility here is directed not at adult professionals but at teenage students,” Callahan wrote. “Students were told—in front of their peers—that the views embodied in their statement of faith were objectionable and hurtful and had no rightful place on campus.”
The school principal had publicly stated that the beliefs of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes were “of a discriminatory nature.” A committee of administrators said the club’s views were “bulls- – -” and even called the members “charlatans” who “forget what tolerance means.”
Daniel Blomberg, who represented the club with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the decision “ensures religious students are again treated fairly in San Jose and throughout California.” Meanwhile, the school district released a statement saying it was considering its options, noting that the “most important” consideration was how to continue enforcing its anti-discrimination policy.
This ruling sets an important precedent for the relationship between religious groups in California schools and their districts. The First Amendment guarantees the right of faith-based groups to ensure that their members profess the tenets of their faith.