Fellowship of Christian Athletes and San Jose Unified School District








Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals


For years, high school students in San Jose, California, have formed student groups associated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to discuss and encourage one another in their shared beliefs. These students met without incident until April 2019, when a member of the faculty posted various traditional religious beliefs that FCA holds on his classroom whiteboard with the disparaging comment that he was “deeply saddened that a club on Pioneer [High School]’s campus asks its members to affirm these statements.” The teacher’s statement was incorrect because FCA requires only its leaders, not its members, to agree with its religious beliefs. The teacher refused to take the message down even after discovering that students in his class participate in FCA. Shortly afterward, district officials unilaterally announced that the district was revoking its recognition of student FCA groups.

Despite multiple letters to district administrators explaining that the district’s failure to recognize student FCA groups violates the Equal Access Act (EAA), the district continued to deny recognition to FCA groups into the next school year. In addition to not recognizing FCA, the district allowed and even facilitated harassment of FCA meeting participants. The District granted full recognition to the Satanic Temple Club to meet during FCA meeting times, despite its organizers having expressed hostility toward FCA’s beliefs and also indicated that a primary purpose of the Satanic Temple Club was to protest. Multiple times during the semester, these students gathered outside of FCA meetings to yell at FCA students and malign their faith. In December, with the encouragement of faculty, the students attempted to enter and disrupt the FCA meeting.

After discussions with the district failed, FCA and its student leaders asked the courts to order the district to allow it equal access to meet on campus just like other student clubs. As FCA explained, its request is eminently reasonable: all FCA asks is that those students who lead its ministry, from directing Bible studies and leading worship to determining the direction of the club’s ministry, to agree with the very beliefs that animate the club’s mission and ministry.

CLS was actively involved in the passage of the Equal Access Act. School districts subject to the EAA must allow religious groups to have the privileges that it grants to any other noncurricular group. San Jose Unified School District recognizes numerous noncurricular groups, including Key Club, Big Sister/Little Sister, and Frisbee Club, but refuses to grant the same recognition and rights to student FCA groups. Moreover, students should be allowed to gather for religious encouragement without having to suffer harassment from their peers, and especially faculty.

On April 22, 2020, CLS, in conjunction with Seto Wood & Schweickert LLP, filed a complaint in federal court against the San Jose Unified School District and certain individual officials. This complaint was filed only after the district refused to take action after numerous complaints had been made to district officials. Previously, on January 14, 2020, CLS had sent a letter to the superintendent of the San Jose Unified School District. The letter documented the district’s illegal refusal to recognize student-led FCA groups and its permissiveness in subjecting the students to harassment from students and faculty. CLS filed an amended complaint on May 19, 2020.

On August 10, 2020, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing in part that the defendants could not be held personally liable under qualified immunity. CLS filed FCA’s response to the San Jose School District’s motion to dismiss on September 8, and the defendants filed their reply on September 22. In seeking to dismiss the case, the school district argued that the defendants could not be held personally liable under qualified immunity. On January 28, 2021, a federal judge disagreed and ruled that FCA may proceed with its claims of discrimination against the district superintendent, a high school principal, and a teacher in their personal capacities.

On July 30, 2021, FCA filed a motion for a preliminary injunction that would restore recognition to the student FCA groups at high schools in the San Jose Unified School District. The defendants filed their brief opposing the preliminary injunction on September 3, and FCA filed its reply brief on September 20. The district court heard FCA’s motion for a preliminary injunction on October 14, which the judge ultimately denied in June of 2022.

After the California district court judge denied FCA’s motion for preliminary injunction, CLS filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit, as well as a motion for an injunction pending appeal. Defendants filed an answering brief opposing the appeal, after which FCA filed a reply brief. The appeal was argued on August 9, 2022, before a three-judge panel, at which plaintiffs requested the panel issue an emergency ruling by August 15. An emergency ruling in favor of plaintiffs would allow FCA to re-apply as an official club for the coming year.

On August 29, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that FCA students must be treated fairly and equally and that the district could not discriminate against their religious leadership standards under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of FCA and required the district to recognize the FCA student groups, the defendants filed a petition requesting a rehearing or a rehearing en banc, which FCA opposed. The Ninth Circuit granted the defendants’ request, and an en banc panel heard oral argument on March 23, 2023. Shortly thereafter, on April 3, the en banc panel voted to issue a preliminary injunction ruling protecting all FCA clubs on all campuses in the San Jose Unified School District pending resolution of the appeal. The injunction ordered the school district to immediately recognize student chapters affiliated with FCA as official “Associated Student Body” approved clubs.

On September 13, 2023, the en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of FCA, finding that the San Jose Unified School District violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment when it revoked its recognition of FCA as an approved student club. The ruling means that FCA and similar religious clubs do not have to give up their faith to have equal access to campus. As a result, FCA student clubs can once again freely gather and hold events on public high school campuses.

“Thanks to a handful of brave teenagers with spines of steel, the nation’s largest appeals court just gave this school district a refresher lesson on the First Amendment.” said Steve McFarland, director of Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law & Religious Freedom.

Read CLS’ press release here.



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