School must recognize Christian club that excludes LGBT kids

In the spring of 2019, a teacher at Pioneer High School in San Jose posted a message on his classroom whiteboard questioning a “Sexual Purity” statement that a club for Christian student-athletes required its leaders to sign.

The club’s statement said sexual relations should only be between married, heterosexual couples. The teacher wrote that he was “deeply saddened” that a public school campus club had gotten its leaders to “validate” these ideas, and he asked the students what they thought of it.

The resulting firestorm led to the San Jose Unified School District revoking recognition of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for excluding LGBTQ students, in violation of the district’s nondiscrimination policy. The club and its international umbrella organization then sued allegations of religious discrimination in federal court.

On Monday, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes won a major victory when a three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the club be reinstated as the official student body for the current school year while the litigation between the parties settles in lower is continued District Court.

Judge Kenneth Kiyul Lee, a Trump-appointed judge, wrote for the Court of Appeals that the case “contradicts two competing values ​​that we uphold as a nation: the principle of nondiscrimination on the one hand, and the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion and freedom of expression on the other on the other hand.”

But, he wrote, the appeals court question is simpler than that.

Evidence showed that the school district had not applied its antidiscrimination policy equally to all groups of students, Lee wrote, but instead was “involved in selective enforcement” that unfairly targeted the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for their religious beliefs, while secular groups who violated the policy went unpunished.

This is a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, he wrote.

“Under the First Amendment, our government must be absolutely neutral when it comes to religion: it cannot treat religious groups any worse than comparable secular ones,” Lee wrote. “But the school district did just that.”

As an example, the judge found that a “Senior Women Club” was recognized by the school district even though male students were excluded, and that a “Big Sisters/Little Sisters” club was recognized even though it “obviously intended” to admit female students to serve. no male students.

Lee wrote that because of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ religious beliefs, the court had no intention of “minimizing the ostracism that gay and lesbian students might suffer.” But, he wrote, “in our pluralistic society, where people of different backgrounds have to live together despite having wildly different worldviews, the free movement clause requires government to respect religious beliefs and behavior even when many people do not share such beliefs. acceptable, logical, consistent or understandable.’”

Lee’s ruling cited several recent court decisions in favor of religious groups against government agencies, including the US Supreme Court, which has firmly sided with religious organizations in recent disputes.

Lee’s opinion adds to this set of precedents and further protects the right of religious organizations to freely practice their religious beliefs, said Daniel Blomberg, attorney for the club.

Blomberg said the San Jose School District selected students at the club with “shocking discrimination” and subjected them to “bullying” because of their religious beliefs, and that Lee’s ruling “put an end to that discrimination and ensured FCA students were treated fairly.” and alike.”

The school district said in a statement Monday that it is “considering the court’s opinion, evaluating options, and will determine next steps as soon as possible.”

It also said that the “most important consideration will be how to further implement its anti-discrimination policy”.

The appeals court’s decision directs the district court to enter an order restoring the status of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as a licensed student club. It is unclear whether the order will have broader implications or whether the school district will settle the lower court case in light of the appeals court’s decision that the club was likely to prevail in its argument that the district violated its First Amendment rights.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes operates thousands of clubs across the country. According to court documents, the organization’s statement on “Sexual Purity” reads: “The Bible teaches that the appropriate place for sexual expression is in the context of a marriage relationship. The biblical description of marriage is a man and a woman in a lifelong commitment.”

The statement angered students and school staff, who publicly opposed the club, filed grievances with the school district, and protested outside of the group’s meetings.

In addition to writing the court’s majority opinion, in which he was joined by Trump-appointed Justice Danielle Forrest, Lee authored a separate, concurring opinion in which he focused almost exclusively on that opposition.

Lee quoted one teacher as calling the club’s beliefs “bullseye,” another describing evangelical Christians “as ‘charlatans’ who perpetuate ‘darkness’ and ‘ignorance’,” and another who “calls his own student ‘idiots.’ vilified for empathizing with FCA members who faced backlash from teachers and students.”

“This is not a neutral treatment of religion, to say the least,” Lee wrote. “More than a whiff, a stench of animus against students’ religious beliefs permeates the campus of Pioneer High School.”

Lee said that “animus” is another reason to judge against the district.

Judge Morgan Christen, an Obama appointee, disagreed with Lee’s majority opinion.

Christen argued that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ request for legal assistance in the Court of Appeals should have been dismissed for lack of charges, in part because the club and its parent organization could not show that there were actual students at Pioneer High School who intended the club to be in this one year and would therefore be violated by the district’s refusal to recognize him.

Christen wrote that her colleagues had granted relief to the club based on the merits of the underlying case as they saw it, rather than the request for relief that was actually before them, saying they had done so “in a Case of” should not do this magnitude.”

Christen had similarly attempted to narrow the scope of the appeals court’s deliberations during this month’s hearings, when she said the case presented “very persuasive and important issues” — but for the lower court, not the appeals court.

Stacey Leyton, a school district attorney, had said the same thing during the altercations, while the club said it had standing and students who wanted to serve as leaders.

Leyton had also defended the school district’s actions more fully, saying it applies the same anti-discrimination policy to all clubs – including requiring everyone to sign a “certificate” certifying the fact that they do not discriminate against other students.

Leyton said student groups are free to represent any belief they want as long as they don’t exclude other students based on protected identities such as race or sexual orientation.

Lee challenged this position during the hearings and in his opinion.

“So suppose a group of college students says, ‘We’re going to start a white nationalist group to celebrate the contributions of European Americans,’ but they say anyone is welcome to join. I mean, would that group be discriminatory under school policy?” Lee asked during the argument.

“This group would not violate district policy, which allows all students to be members or leaders,” Leyton said. She began adding that the district might still investigate complaints that such a club discriminated against black students, but Lee interjected.

“That seems to me, you know, shocking,” he said. “Allowing a white nationalist group is it really a non-discriminatory policy?”

Leyton said the school district “may disapprove of the beliefs of numerous groups of students,” but such disapproval “does not matter” if the groups sign the endorsements and allow all other students to join as members and leaders.

In his opinion Monday, Lee wrote that the school district’s reliance on such “affirmations” would amount to a “formalistic litmus test” that would not serve the district’s “goal of inclusion” but would penalize groups of students who were “honest about their Mission are and membership.” School must recognize Christian club that excludes LGBT kids

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