In a recent decision that will undoubtedly rock the educational world, the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court ruled that Christian clubs are allowed on public school campuses.
As Fox News reports, these clubs have faced a long and difficult fight for several years. The court’s ruling will have a huge impact on the future of religious groups in public schools all across the nation.
Where It All Started
It began in the San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD). After receiving a complaint in 2019, the principal of Pioneer High School banned the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) from campus.
The FCA is a school club that describes itself as “a community working to see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.”
Despite separation of church and state, students are allowed to express their religious beliefs at school. So why did Pioneer High School, and so many others, take issue with the FCA? The answer? Discrimination.
LGBTQ+ Relationships Are ‘Impure’
According to official court documents, the FCA’s Sexual Purity Statement is problematic. The statement emphasizes that marriage between a man and a woman is the only appropriate venue for sexual relations and asks its members to “turn away from any impure lifestyle.”
The implication is obvious: LGBTQ+ relationships are not in line with the organization’s values.
The FCA allowed queer students to join as long as they agreed to the overall Christian values. However, these students were specifically banned from leadership positions as it would “undercut the group’s mission and message.”
This blatant exclusion of LGBTQ+ students from positions of leadership went against the district’s non-discrimination policy. Soon after Pioneer High School removed the organization, two other San Jose schools followed suit.
Students Sued The District
The following April, two students sued the district for violating their First Amendment rights. They claimed that the FCA was being discriminated against for its religion.
The case escalated and drew national attention until it reached the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The court reviewed the case and found that the schools were, in fact, targeting religious organizations specifically.
The Court Favored FCA
It cited secular groups like the Senior Women Club and the South Asian Heritage Club. Both these clubs discriminate based on sex and ethnicity, and yet both are recognized and funded by the San Jose school district.
The court ruled in favor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, stating the SJUSD “is treating comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.”
The Court’s Decision Gathered Mixed Reactions
The court’s decision was met with equal parts celebration and critique. Secular groups felt it was a loss for LGBTQ+ students, while conservative and religious organizations felt it was a win for religious freedom.
Supporters Of The Decision Expressed Joy
The local FCA leader for Bay Area schools released a statement saying, “FCA is excited to be able to get back to serving our campuses.”
Daniel Blomberg, the senior counselor at Beckett Law—a non-partisan law firm focused on protecting all religious freedom—expressed his joy over the ruling.
“Local FCA clubs had served students in San Jose high schools for over a decade. They held regular meetings open to all students and supported the local community by leading sports camps and donating sports equipment to underserved groups,” he tweeted.
“Today’s ruling ensures FCA will once again be treated equally and can return to campus for prayer, service, and ministry.”
Local FCA clubs had served students in San Jose high schools for over a decade. They held regular meetings open to all students and supported the local community by leading sports camps and donating sports equipment to underserved groups.— Daniel Blomberg (@DBlombergSC) September 13, 2023
The District Leadership Was Disappointed
The district leadership expressed its disappointment in an emailed press statement.
“While we are disappointed in today’s decision, the San José Unified School District respects the judicial system and its essential role in our democracy. The most important consideration will be how to continue to implement San José Unified’s long-standing policy against discrimination in district programs and activities.”
A Gray Area
While this is a success in religious freedom, there are many questions school districts and families will have to contend with moving forward. Most important is the question of how schools can respect all aspects of students’ beliefs and background, both religious and secular.
This ruling signals a significant change in the conversation around religious freedom and public schools, and it will be interesting to see what precedent it sets for the nation at large.
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This article was produced and syndicated by TPR Teaching.
Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.