In another landmark ruling for religious liberty, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes high school chapter whose status was revoked by the school and whose members were harassed have had the club and its members’ rights restored by a court.
The FCA chapter at Pioneer High School in San Jose, California came under fire in 2019 for its religious beliefs on sexuality, resulting in harassment and religious discrimination, a lawsuit against the school district claimed.
Now a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court and revived an injunction against the district, restoring the club’s school-approved status.
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment “requires the government to respect religious beliefs and conduct,” a legal requirement that was violated when the school district rescinded its recognition of the FCA chapter, the appeals panel wrote in its 2-1 decision Aug. 29.
FCA students who wish to become Leadership Team members must fill out an application that includes statements of faith and sexual purity that applicants must sign and affirm. Among other things, the statements detail FCA’s belief that extramarital sex and homosexual acts are both unbiblical.
When other students and teachers at Pioneer High complained about the sexual purity statement, the San Jose Unified School District revoked the club’s official status, denying it the benefits that other approved organizations receive. Those benefits include school resources and recruitment tools, an official faculty advisor, and fundraising tools.
The school district claimed the purity statement violated its Non-Discrimination Policy, which prohibits discrimination or harassment for a variety of reasons including gender and sexual orientation.
Notably, the district’s nondiscrimination policy also protects religion.
Even more upsetting to many than the revoking of its status was the harassment FCA students experienced. Members were “stigmatized, intimidated, harassed, and bullied for their religious beliefs,” says a letter to the district’s superintendent from the religious rights advocate Center for Law and Religious Freedom.
The harassment was allegedly incited by social studies teacher Peter Glasser, who posted FCA’s sexual purity statement on his whiteboard, writing below it, “I am deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements. How do you feel?”
The Center of Law and Religious Freedom wrote that Glasser both “mischaracterized the standards for student FCA groups” and “disparaged some of his students’ religious beliefs.”
FCA membership is open to all students, and the statements of faith and sexual purity are affirmed only by student officers. Regardless, Pioneer High students protested FCA on numerous occasions, disrupting club meetings and belittling the organization’s religious beliefs.
In April 2020, two students filed the lawsuit against the district, which has now been returned to the lower court with the injunction intact.
The appeals court decision reaffirms the principle that the law is not a weapon to be wielded against people with different beliefs, but rather a tool to create a level playing field for all, regardless of creed.