An appellate court panel has ordered San Jose Unified School District to reinstate Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club chapters in a legal battle pitting religious freedom against the district’s effort to promote gay rights.

The dispute arose in 2019 when Pioneer High School withdrew official recognition of the Christian athletes club after some teachers and students argued it discriminates against gays by asking its student leaders to affirm traditional beliefs about marriage and sex. The Christian students countered they were treated unfairly by a district that recognized a Satanic Temple club and others that restricted membership by sex.

A majority of the three-judge Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled that a lower court erred in refusing to order Pioneer High and San Jose Unified to reinstate the Christian student club as a recognized campus organization while the case continues.

“This case pitted 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 appellate court’s opinion said.

“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,” the judges wrote. “But the School District did just that.”

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, founded in 1954 and based in Kansas City, Missouri, promotes faith through sports with “Huddles” or small-group bible studies for coaches and athletes. Among its founders was Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who had famously broken the major leagues’ color line by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The club and two former Pioneer students, Elizabeth Sinclair and Charlotte Klarke, sued San Jose Unified in April 2020 after school officials in May 2019 revoked official recognition of the chapter at Pioneer High.

School officials acknowledged the club is open to all students regardless of their faith. But they claimed the club violated the district’s nondiscrimination policy because it asks its student leaders to affirm a statement of faith that “sexual intimacy is to be expressed only within the context of marriage” and that “marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”

Though the Christian athletes clubs had been recognized at three district schools since the early 2000s, their status was called into question in April 2019 by Pioneer social studies teacher Peter Glasser, who told his class he was “deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements.” He complained to the principal, and the school stripped the club of its recognition, citing district policy that schools “shall be free from discrimination” including for “sexual orientation.”

The club was allowed to continue meeting on campus, but without official recognition it no longer was listed or included in the yearbook, could not fundraise on campus or use school sponsored bank accounts, and had no faculty adviser or priority for on-campus meeting space.

The Fellowship of Christian Atheletes argued the school allowed the Satanic Temple club to meet at the same time as Pioneer’s FCA chapter, demonstrating outside of the club’s meetings and harassing its members.

Campuses shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Sinclair and Klarke graduated in June that year, but the legal battle continued. For the 2020-21 school year, the district revised its club nondiscrimination policy, but continued to single out the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for noncompliance.

In June, a federal judge rejected the club’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would have required San Jose Unified to reinstate the chapter pending the outcome of the case. FCA appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit.

Judges Kenneth K. Lee and Danielle J. Forrest, both Trump appointees, supported Monday’s ruling while Judge Morgan Christen, an Obama appointee, dissented. The majority noted that the district’s revised policy recognized and allowed a Senior Women of Leland High School club whose membership was restricted to “seniors who identify as female.” The district also had allowed a Big Sisters/Little Sisters and South Asian Club whose memberships were limited to gender or ethnic identity, the judges said.

“The School District engaged in selective enforcement of its own non-discrimination policy, penalizing FCA while looking the other way with other secular student groups that maintained facially discriminatory membership criteria,” the judges wrote.

Lee added that the district showed outright hostility toward the Christian students and their club, with faculty members disparaging their faith and beliefs. One teacher, he said, described evangelical Christians as “charlatans” who perpetuate “darkness” and “ignorance.”

“This is not, to put it mildly,” Lee wrote, “neutral treatment of religion.”

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes said in a statement that “we are grateful for the court decision allowing FCA Huddles to resume serving students on San Jose campuses, like the clubs have for over a decade, and like FCA does on thousands of campuses nationwide.”

San Jose Unified Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said in a statement that the district “respects the judicial system and its essential role in our democracy,” and is “reviewing the court’s opinion, assessing options, and will determine next steps as soon as possible.”

“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,” Albarrán said.

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