Student courage and judicial clarity

Published January 17, 2024

WORLD Opinions

A 9th Circuit decision strengthens religious freedom on campus

Among 2023’s religious freedom highlights, student-athletes deserve special mention. Sports test character on and off the field, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes builds on that potential to nurture Christian character in athletes, whether in the arena of competitive sports or competing worldviews. For FCA student leaders in California’s San Jose school district, that character was tested and confirmed during a multi-year challenge only resolved in federal court. This fall, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld FCA’s religious freedom in an important decision for similar student groups and for religious free exercise generally.

The facts of the case show that FCA student leaders exhibited remarkable courage and integrity in the face of tremendous animosity. FCA had been active at San Jose’s Pioneer High School for almost two decades without any complaints. Then in April 2019, the student group was derecognized just two weeks after a teacher took issue with the FCA statement of faith and conduct that the group’s student leaders are to affirm. That teacher posted the FCA statement in his classroom, expressed his disapproval, invited students to comment on it, and wrote in an email to the school principal that he was “not willing to be the enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.” The school’s “Climate Committee” made up of several school administrators and faculty decided that FCA’s biblical views about sexual relations and marriage were contrary to campus “inclusiveness.” The principal was quoted in the student newspaper referring to the group’s leadership standards as “discriminatory.”

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Jennifer Patterson is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her work focuses on projects related to religious freedom and overcoming poverty, drawing on her more than 25 years of experience in public policy.

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