A teenage girl from a minority community wants to live out her faith at school. But her school district admitted in federal court that it would rather recognize a white nationalist group than her Fellowship of Christian Athletes club — all because her club asks the students who lead its prayers and Bible studies to actually believe in the God to whom they are praying.
But thanks to Monday’s ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the brave FCA member students can finally meet as an officially recognized club after years of hostility and discrimination from the San Jose (California) Unified School District. For them, back to school means back to religious liberty.
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. Both the First Amendment and federal Equal Access Act protect students’ ability to form religious clubs without fear of harassment.
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 single history teacher launched a hostile campaign to oust FCA from campus — even though school officials recognized that “FCA does great things on campus” and is led by “great students.”
The only issue, which no student had ever complained about, was that FCA asked its student leaders to agree with its statement of faith.
After the teacher attacked the group, FCA’s student leaders endured months of protests, hostility, social media threats and targeting by the school newspaper, and their own teachers called their beliefs “bulls***” and described evangelical Christians as “charlatans” who perpetuate “darkness.”
Despite all this pressure, two courageous girls decided to defend their rights in court so that future teens wouldn’t face the same harassment. Thanks to their willingness to take a stand, a new group of students will finally have their FCA club approved this year.
Judge Kenneth K. Lee of the Ninth Circuit called the hostility exhibited by the school “more than a whiff, a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs.” That animus violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Lee also compared the district’s “all-comers” policy, which kept changing during the lawsuit, to “putting lipstick on a pig,” because it prevented FCA 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 based on sex, race, age and even 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.
The First Amendment guarantees that “the government cannot set double standards to the detriment of religious clubs only” — double standards that became crystal clear during oral argument at the Ninth Circuit. The district even admitted that it would grant recognition to a white nationalist club as long as members signed a form promising not to discriminate, but not to the school’s FCA chapter, which primarily consists of minorities and teen girls seeking to encourage each other in their faith. Lee called this admission “shocking.”
Thanks to the court’s ruling, the teen leaders of FCA can meet, recruit new members and hold events at San Jose high schools this year — or the school district will be right back in court, this time facing legal consequences for its actions.
As a new school year begins, students of all faiths should be encouraged because courts are finally recognizing that the Constitution and the Equal Access Act protect them, too. As the Supreme Court recently held in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the First Amendment protects students’ and teachers’ freedom to live out their beliefs at school, “whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.”
Schools where students can freely express their diverse beliefs are a richer environment for everyone. As 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.”
This year, back to school means back to the Constitution.
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