Religious student clubs regain equal treatment in California schools after court ruling

Alex Cochran, Deseret News
Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Student clubs associated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes will once again be officially recognized by public schools in California’s San Jose Unified School District after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that they had been wrongly excluded from campus life.

School officials cannot treat religious clubs differently than other student organizations even if they impose faith-based restrictions on their members, the ruling said.

“Under the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion and free speech, the government may not single out religious groups for special disfavor compared to similar secular groups,” wrote Judge Consuelo M. Callahan for the majority.


Wednesday’s ruling is the latest development in a legal saga that dates back to 2019. That’s when school officials put new restrictions on clubs associated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes due to concerns about the clubs’ views on LGBTQ rights.

The school district’s main issue, according to the 9th Circuit’s decision, was that the clubs required students interested in leadership positions “to affirm a Statement of Faith, which includes the belief that sexual relations should be within the confines of a marriage between a man and a woman.”

School officials believed that such a policy violated the district’s non-discrimination rules and, as a result, revoked the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ official status on campus.

The clubs could still meet on school grounds, but could not keep their club funds in school accounts or be listed in the yearbook, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

In April 2020, two students filed a lawsuit seeking to restore the faith-based clubs’ previous status. The district court ruled for the school district, but that decision has now been overturned by the 9th Circuit.

In Wednesday’s ruling, Callahan wrote that concerns about anti-LGBTQ discrimination, while important, cannot be used to justify unfair treatment of religious clubs.

“While it cannot be overstated that anti-discrimination policies certainly serve worthy causes — particularly within the context of a school setting where students are often finding themselves — those policies may not themselves be utilized in a manner that transgresses or supersedes the government’s constitutional commitment to be steadfastly neutral to religion,” she wrote for the majority.

The ruling also said that clubs associated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes should not be penalized for requiring leaders to affirm a statement of faith if other clubs, such as the “Senior Women” club, are allowed to require leaders to be a certain age and gender.

“The District, rather than treating (the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) like comparable secular student groups whose membership was limited based on criteria including sex, race, ethnicity and gender identity, penalized it based on its religious beliefs,” Wednesday’s ruling said.

In a statement released by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an organization leader expressed excitement about the opportunity to once again fully serve San Jose students.

“FCA is excited to be able to get back to serving our campuses,” said Rigo Lopez, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader for Bay Area schools. “Our FCA teams have long enjoyed strong relationships with teachers and students in the past, and we are looking forward to that again.”