by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
First Liberty is supporting the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in an important legal battle that could impact religious groups on public school campuses across the country. We recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting FCA, arguing that federal law and the Constitution protect student-led groups from religious discrimination.
FCA—represented by our friends at Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom and the Becket Fund—has been embroiled in a legal fight since 2019. The San Jose Unified School District in California unlawfully canceled the club. Why? Because FCA requires those who lead its ministry to affirm the club’s religious beliefs. The school district revoked the club’s official status, effectively forcing it out of existence on multiple campuses.
They challenged the decision in federal court and argued school district violated the 1984 Equal Access Act, a federal law protecting student meetings and prohibiting schools from barring such meetings on the basis of religious, political, philosophical or other speech content.
A full panel of judges of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case on March 20.
We submitted our brief on behalf of current and former students who faced religious discrimination from their public schools because they led religious student clubs. We argued the school district did not apply the rules evenhandedly and singled out FCA because of its religious beliefs. Our attorneys explain:
“Despite the District’s halfhearted efforts to justify its actions, the Establishment Clause provides no excuse for marginalizing students’ religious activity at school…The First Amendment guarantees that American students are treated equally and respectfully, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
We also remind the 9th Circuit of our two recent U.S. Supreme Court victories upholding religious liberty and expression in America’s schools. The Court held in Coach Kennedy’s case that the Constitution does not “require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor,” nor does it justify censoring “private religious speech.” We also point to our Treat Children Fairly case, which made clear the government must treat religious people and organizations the same as everyone else.
Last fall, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit appeared to hand FCA a long-awaited victory. It ruled that the school district violated the students’ and FCA’s First Amendment rights. It reversed a federal district court and ordered that the Pioneer High School FCA club be officially recognized for the current school year. However, a majority on the 9th Circuit voted earlier this year to rehear the case en banc before a panel of 11 judges.
Let’s continue praying for FCA and their legal team as they prepare to go court. This case and several First Liberty cases have huge implications for religious freedom in America’s schools.
Fighting for What Matters Most in Our Nation’s Schools
We’re preparing to argue our Prayer Out of Bounds? case involving Cambridge Christian School at the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The argument is set for June 26th.
The case deals with two private Christian schools that competed for a state championship in 2015 at what was then the Citrus Bowl, now known as Orlando’s Camping World Stadium. The Florida High School Athletic Association prohibited them from using the city-owned microphone to pray before kickoff.
We’re arguing that the athletic association’s prayer ban is unconstitutional. We remind the 11th Circuit what the Supreme Court held in our Coach Kennedy case: government cannot “ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
Students should not be punished, harassed or excluded because of their religious beliefs. America’s schools should be places that foster an environment inclusive of diverse viewpoints.
If state officials can discriminate against two Christian schools and prevent them from praying in public, it won’t be long before they pick and choose other speech to censor. And if school districts can target and intimidate religious clubs nearly out of existence with impunity, how long will it take for school districts elsewhere to do the same?
Our argument date is quickly approaching, and we need your continued support. Thanks to you, First Liberty continues brining the big wins and protecting the rights of your children and grandchildren. Every dollar you give is essential in keeping our expert legal team equipped to fight these religious liberty battles. Please donate today.