The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) is a sports ministry that encourages athletes — amateur and professional — to use the platform of sports to share the Gospel.
FCA clubs on school campuses choose leaders who share biblical beliefs. After a teacher in the San Jose Unified School District complained about the group’s beliefs, the district kicked three FCA student clubs off their high school campuses.
According to Becket Law, a teacher at Pioneer High School “targeted the club during class time, and then sent emails to the school principal describing FCA’s beliefs in vulgar language and advocating for FCA’s removal from campus. He even suggested that FCA’s beliefs and mere presence on campus should be treated as equivalent to sexual harassment.”
The district denied the groups’ request for reinstatement but did recognize the Satanic Temple Club, which Becket Law said was created to protest the FCA group.
The FCA and two students sued the school district on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act, which states that it is unlawful for any government secondary school to deny equal access to students who wish to conduct a meeting at school on the basis of religion and other factors.
A lower court denied the group’s request for a preliminary injunction, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last August reversed the decision and directed the court to order reinstatement.
“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 judge wrote (PDF). “But the School District did just that.”
Unfortunately for the FCA and the students, the Ninth Circuit vacated the three-judge panel’s decision earlier this month and will rehear the case. From Reuters (emphasis added):
The San Francisco-based appeals court did so after a majority of its non-recused active judges voted to have an 11-judge panel rehear the case en banc. Arguments will take place the week of March 20 in Pasadena, California.
The San Jose Unified School District in a statement welcomed the 9th Circuit’s decision to rehear the case, saying “our long-standing policy against discrimination in district programs and activities is fully consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
The three-judge panel’s decision in favor of the FCA was correct. The district treated the religious group differently (worse) than secular groups. The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Access Act protect against this very thing. What grounds would the court have to reserve the panel’s decision? None. The court should uphold the panel’s ruling.
Photo credit: By Yngvadottir – from the public street, CC BY-SA 3.0, link
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