Appeals Court: School District Must Respect FCA Chapter’s Rights

Appeals Court: School District Must Respect FCA Chapter’s Rights

After what became a four-year legal battle, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a California high school must recognize a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) chapter as an official student club and allow them to require their leaders to affirm Biblical beliefs about marriage.

The San Jose Unified School District agreed to pay $5.8 million in attorneys’ fees and costs to law firms and $90,000 each in damages to two FCA student leaders.

“Thanks to a handful of brave teenagers with spines of steel, the nation’s largest appeals court just gave this school district a refresher lesson on the First Amendment,” said Steve McFarland, director of Christian Legal Society’s (CLS) Center for Law & Religious Freedom, one of the firms that represented FCA in court alongside Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Christopher Schweickert of Seto Wood & Schweickert LLP.

“Public schools should respect every student’s religious beliefs and treat every student with dignity,” McFarland said. “We are grateful the court has reaffirmed this foundational right of every student.”

FCA welcomes all to attend their meetings, but requires student leaders to agree with its Biblical Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement, both of which include portions that state marriage between one man and one woman is the only appropriate context for sexual expression.

In April 2019, Peter Glasser, a teacher at Pioneer High School in San Jose, California, posted FCA’s Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement on his whiteboard, having written beneath them, “I am deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements. How do you feel?”

Some students in Glasser’s classroom were members of Pioneer FCA and, despite numerous complaints to Principal Herb Espiritu, nothing was done about the display. It was left on the whiteboard for at least a week.

Glasser proceeded to rally students, teachers and school officials against Pioneer FCA for its Biblical beliefs, taking his concerns to the school’s “Climate Committee.” Two days after the Climate Committee meeting, with no prior discussion with FCA leadership, Espiritu informed them that FCA would no longer be a recognized club on Pioneer’s campus, causing it to lose the numerous benefits associated with recognition, including a meeting place on campus.

For the 2019-2020 school year, the school district recognized The Satanic Temple Club, which proceeded in October 2019 to harass FCA club members by protesting and demonstrating at every remaining FCA meeting of the year. The district allowed the demonstrators to yell at, harass and intimidate FCA members and did nothing to prevent direct harassment, despite complaints from officials, employees and students. The district threatened to penalize students if they did not acquiesce in the protesters’ harassment, according to FCA’s complaint.

In April 2020, FCA National and two student leaders sued the San Jose Unified School District. A federal district judge sided with the school district in June 2022, then a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling in August of that same year. In September of last year, the full 11-judge panel of the appeals court ruled that the district’s application of its anti-discrimination policy discriminated against FCA.

In the settlement entered May 6, Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. ordered the school district to grant Pioneer FCA club status and prohibited the district from denying FCA status as a recognized student group or any benefit associated with that status because of the club’s requirement for its leaders to agree with its religious beliefs. The settlement also prohibits the district from imposing rules on FCA that are not equally applied to other student groups or have the effect of penalizing or prohibiting FCA’s application of its leadership requirements.

“Teachers aren’t supposed to be criticizing students’ religious beliefs,” said Kim Colby, an attorney with CLS and co-counsel for FCA and the students. “I don’t know how the students handled it as well as they did.”

Rigo Lopez, local FCA leader for Bay Area schools, said in a press release, “FCA is excited to get back to serving our campuses. … Our FCA teams have long enjoyed strong relationships with teachers and students in the past, and we are looking forward to that again.”

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