In a major victory for religious freedom advocates and a defeat for LGBTQ rights, a three-judge panel in California reinstated a public school club in San Jose that denied membership to LGBTQ students based on a “Sexual Purity” pledge.
On Monday, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was ordered reinstated for the current school year while litigation continued in a lower court.
Writing for the majority, Trump appointee Judge Kenneth Kiyul Lee of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the case represented “two competing values that we cherish as a nation: the principle of non-discrimination on the one hand, and the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion and free speech on the other hand.”
The case emerged from an all-school controversy in 2019, when a teacher at Pioneer High School in San Jose asked students what they thought about the Christian club’s “Sexual Purity” pledge, which according to court records states: “The Bible teaches that the appropriate place for sexual expression is in the context of a marriage relationship. The biblical description of marriage is one man and one woman in a lifelong commitment.”
Leaders of the group were required to sign.
Students weren’t having it.
Protests erupted outside the club’s meetings, and complaints were filed. Teachers and allies spoke out publicly.
The outcry prompted the San Jose Unified School District to rescind the club’s official status. The club sued, alleging religious discrimination.
In his opinion, Lee said the crux of the issue was how the school district applied its non-discrimination policy to all school clubs, not just the Christian Fellowship group.
“Under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral when it comes to religion: It cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones,” he wrote. “But the School District did just that.”
The judge cited a “Senior Women Club” that excluded male students, and a “Big Sisters/Little Sisters” club that was “obviously intended” to serve female students, not male students.
While the court didn’t “minimize the ostracism that gay and lesbian students may endure,” Lee wrote, “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, even if many people may find such beliefs to not be ‘acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible.’”
Lee cited numerous recent precedents upholding religious freedom, from the Supreme Court down.
He also called out “animus” in the school’s treatment of the faith-based group.
According to the court’s findings, one teacher called the club’s beliefs “bulls—”, another described evangelical Christians “as ‘charlatans’ who perpetuate ‘darkness’ and ‘ignorance,’” and another “denigrated his own student as an ‘idiot’ for empathizing with FCA members who faced backlash from teachers and students.”
“This is not, to put it mildly, neutral treatment of religion,” Lee wrote. “More than a whiff, a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs pervades the Pioneer High School campus.”
The school district said it was “reviewing the court’s opinion, assessing options, and will determine next steps as soon as possible.”