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School Must Reinstate Anti-LGBTQ+ Religious Club, Court Rules

Pioneer High School
Courtesy Pioneer High School

The San Jose, Calif., school district had withdrawn recognition of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes over the group's anti-LGBTQ+ stance.

A Christian group that discriminates against LGBTQ+ people must be reinstated as an official student organization at a high school in San Jose, Calif., while a lawsuit against it proceeds, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The San Jose Unified School District had withdrawn recognition of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes after a controversy over the club at Pioneer High School, the Los Angeles Times reports. In 2019, a teacher had questioned its "Sexual Purity" statement, which said heterosexual marriage was the only proper setting for sexual relationships. The teacher said he was "deeply saddened" by this and asked students for their opinions. After complaints and protests, the district ended up rescinding recognition of the club, saying it was in violation of San Jose Unified's nondiscrimination policy.

The group and its parent organization then sued, claiming this amounted to discrimination on the basis of religion. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed. The judges ruled 2-1 that the fellowship was likely to win its discrimination case and ordered that it be reinstated while the case is hear.

Judge Kenneth Kiyul Lee, who was appointed to the court by Donald Trump, wrote that the district did not apply the nondiscrimination policy neutrally but focused it on a religious group. For instance, the district recognizes secular clubs that limit participation to one gender, he said. He not only wrote the majority opinion but a concurring one in which he asserted that "a stench of animus against the students' religious beliefs pervades the Pioneer High School campus."

Judge Morgan Christen, appointed by President Barack Obama, dissented from the majority. "Christen argued that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' request for relief from the appellate court should have been dismissed for lack of standing, in part because the club and its parent organization had failed to show that there were actually students at Pioneer High School who intended to lead the club this year and would therefore be injured by the district's refusal to recognize it," the Times reports.

Stacey Leyton, an attorney representing San Jose Unified, had made a similar argument about standing and had said the district does apply the nondiscrimination policy equally. It requires official student groups to sign a policy stating they won't discriminate against any protected group, she said in court.

Daniel Blomberg, an attorney for the fellowship, praised the ruling, saying it "put an end to this discrimination and ensured FCA students are treated fairly and equally," according to the Times.

The school district issued a statement saying it is reviewing the court's opinion, assessing options, and will determine next steps as soon as possible."

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