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Ninth Circuit: California school district must reinstate the student club it banned for holding Christian beliefs on marriage


“We live in polarized times…evangelicals like FCA are charlatans and not in the least bit Christian based…They choose darkness over knowledge and they perpetuate ignorance.”


The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) in California unconstitutionally discriminated against members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) when it removed recognition from their club and allowed school faculty to engage in a campaign to malign and protest both the organization and the student members because of their religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

Quick Facts

In an en banc ruling by the full court, the Ninth Circuit ordered SJUSD to immediately reinstate FCA student clubs at all of its local schools.

The FCA, as its name implies, is a ministry for Christian athletes and requires its student leaders to affirm the group’s Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement, both of which state that sexual activity should only be within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman.

The FCA had an affiliate club at Pioneer High School for more than 10 years.

In 2019, a teacher at Pioneer High School named Peter Glasser obtained copies of the statements signed by leaders of the school’s FCA affiliate. He found the beliefs “objectionable” and posted the statements on his whiteboard, claiming that FCA required all members to sign them, which, he said, “deeply saddened” him. Despite the fact that students within FCA informed him that only leaders had to sign the statements, Glasser intensified his efforts against FCA.

Glasser sent an email to Principal Herb Espiritu and other faculty members, stating that one of his students was “very upset about the anti-gay prerequisites for membership/officership.” Glasser continually hounded leadership and questioned whether FCA should be banned from campus. In part Glasser said,

“In so many ways, I feel that there’s only one thing to say that will protect our students who are so victimized by religious views that discriminate against them: I am an adult on your campus, and these views are [expletive] to me. They have no validity. It’s not a choice, and it’s not a sin. I’m not willing to be the enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.”

He also said, “…part of me thinks that attacking these views is the only way to make a better campus.”

The next day the school’s “Climate Committee” decided that the pledges conflicted with the school’s values. The committee stripped the club of its school recognition and then Espiritu released a statement to the school newspaper, saying, “The pledge is of a discriminatory nature.”

He later testified in court that he and the committee never spoke to the FCA students nor allowed them to confirm or deny the requirements.

Though the school no longer recognized the group, they were still permitted to meet on campus. In response, angry faculty fomented an uprising against the club and its student members. The faculty advisor for the Pony Express, the school newspaper, called a student on the newspaper staff “an idiot” for feeling sorry for the FCA members.

The faculty advisor for the Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club called FCA’s pledges a “hurtful message and problem” and urged students to rally against them. Glasser emailed Espiritu to see if the school’s sexual harassment policy could be used to ban the club from campus.

Meanwhile, FCA again applied for school recognition during the 2019-2020 school year but was denied, while a Satanic Temple Club was given recognition. Faculty member and member of the Climate Committee Michelle Bowman served as the Satanic Temple Club’s advisor and told the student who started the club:

“We live in polarized times…evangelicals like FCA are charlatans and not in the least bit Christian based…They choose darkness over knowledge and they perpetuate ignorance.”

Students in the Satanic Temple Club responded to her calls for “action” by launching protests against the student group. Throughout the school year, students protested at every FCA meeting and event.

In April 2020, two FCA students filed suit against school officials, including Principal Espiritu. Prior to the next school year, the district adopted a new nondiscrimination policy that required all school-recognized clubs to accept all applicants for membership and leadership, but the school allowed some clubs, including the Senior Women and South Asian Heritage clubs, to discriminate.

A lower court sided with the school but the Ninth Circuit found that the school had illegally targeted and discriminated against FCA, writing,

“The District, rather than treating FCA 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. Because the Constitution prohibits such a double standard—even in the absence of any motive to do so—we reverse the district court’s denial of FCA’s motion for a preliminary injunction.”

In weighing the school’s actions, the court found that SJUSD had failed all parts of the “three bedrock requirements of the Free Exercise Clause the government may not transgress.” It listed these as follows:

  1. A “purportedly neutral ‘generally applicable’ policy may not have ‘a mechanism for individualized exemptions.’”
  2. The government “may not ‘treat . . . comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.’”
  3.  The government “may not act in a manner ‘hostile to . . . religious beliefs’ or inconsistent with the Free Exercise Clause’s bar on even ‘subtle departures from neutrality.’”

While district officials claimed there was not “any whiff of antireligious animus” in the case, the court disagreed. The court found that the animosity shown by the school district exceeded that of the test case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, ruling,

“Assessed in their totality, the facts of this case arguably demonstrate animus by government decisionmakers exceeding that present in Masterpiece Cakeshop or Lukumi. This holds particularly true when bearing in mind the hostility here is directed not at adult professionals, but at teenage students. 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 court added,

“The objections to FCA’s presence were not merely passive, either. Students formed the Satanic Temple Club, which Glasser viewed as created for the sole purpose of mocking FCA, and whose faculty advisor was another Climate Committee member. Anti-discrimination laws and policies serve undeniably admirable goals, but when those goals collide with the protections of the Constitution, they must yield—no matter how well-intentioned.”

This week the Freedom Center wrote about a California school district that decided to ban flags other than the U.S. and California state flags because by allowing LGBT flags and not other flags, the school was creating division and expressing approval for some beliefs and disapproval for others. This is a constitutional policy, as affirmed in the recent Supreme Court case of Shurtleff v. City of Boston.

The FCA case shows a California school district doing the exact opposite while openly discriminating against a disfavored view.

This is happening around the country as schools advance the “inclusive” religion of LGBT ideology and discriminate against those with different beliefs — and not just Christians but also Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their orthodoxy. The treatment of these high school students by government employees was truly shameful, but it reflects the attitude of many progressive teachers, faculty, and school board members across America. Their disdain for those who won’t bow down to the rainbow image of LGBT ideology controls their actions.

Bravo to the Ninth Circuit for upholding the rights of students to exercise their religious freedom, but it is truly sad that it took years of legal action for these students to finally see their God-given constitutional rights restored.

Collegiate education is saturated in woke narratives and progressive agendas. Sadly, this secularistic intrusion is happening in America’s grade schools as well. But this doesn’t have to happen to your children! Liberty University Online Academy is a K-12 program designed to educate your children in the ways of the Lord while preparing them to stand firm in their faith when they graduate. Our flexible online curriculum ensures your student is trained at your convenience and keeps YOU the ultimate educator of your children.

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