On Monday, August 29, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in an important free exercise case. The court directed entry of a preliminary injunction ordering the San Jose Unified School District to stop discriminating against—and to grant official recognition to—an FCA club for the upcoming school year because the club’s First Amendment and Equal Access Act claims were likely to succeed on the merits.

FCA is an international student ministry dedicated to helping students and coaches hear and share their Christian faith. After FCA clubs met for years at three high schools in San Jose, a teacher launched a campaign to oust FCA from campus. The issue raised by the teacher, which no student had ever complained about, was that FCA asked its student leaders to agree with its Statement of Faith. FCA’s student leaders endured months of protests, hostility, social media threats, and targeting by the school newspaper. 

In the panel opinion, Judge Kenneth K. Lee and Judge Danielle J. Forrest concluded that the district’s selective enforcement of its “all-comers” policy violated the Free Exercise Clause. Judge Lee compared the district’s policy, which kept changing during the lawsuit, to “putting lipstick on a pig,” because it selectively targeted FCA to prohibit it from choosing leaders who shared its faith. Meanwhile, the district allowed clubs like Senior Women, the South Asian Club, and the National Honors Society to select leaders and members based on sex, race, age, and moral character. The court held that “the School District cannot—and does not—advance its interest in non-discrimination by discriminating” against religious clubs like FCA.

Judge Lee also wrote a separate concurrence observing that the school’s hostility was “[m]ore than a whiff, a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs,” and was an additional violation of the Free Exercise Clause independent of the school’s differential treatment. Judge Christen dissented on procedural grounds, focusing on the district’s standing arguments but not reaching the merits.

As the Ninth Circuit ruled, the First Amendment guarantees that “[t]he government cannot set double standards to the detriment of religious clubs only.” Because of the court’s ruling, the teen leaders of FCA can meet, recruit new members, and hold events at San Jose high schools this year. 

The Ninth Circuit’s decision is a victory not just for the FCA students in San Jose, but for all religious students at public schools within the circuit. Both the First Amendment and federal Equal Access Act protect students’ ability to form religious clubs without fear of harassment. As Judge Lee put it, “in our pluralistic society in which people from diverse backgrounds must coexist despite having starkly different worldviews, the Free Exercise Clause requires the government to respect religious beliefs and conduct.”

Kayla Toney is associate counsel for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm exclusively dedicated to defending religious liberty for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.

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