On January 28, 2021, a federal judge 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 April 22, 2020, CLS, in conjunction with Seto Wood & Schweickert LLP, filed a federal complaint against the San Jose Unified School District and certain individual officials. CLS filed an amended complaint on May 5, 2020. This complaint was filed only after the District refused to take action after numerous complaints to the District. Previously, on January 14, 2020, CLS had sent a letter to the Superintendent of San Jose Unified School District documenting the District’s illegal refusal to recognize student-led FCA groups and subjecting the students to harassment from students and faculty.
On August 10, 2020, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing in part that the Defendants could not be held personally liable under qualified immunity. CLS filed its response to the San Jose School District’s motion to dismiss on September 8, and 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.
Students Meeting to Discuss Their Faith
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.” (This statement was incorrect because FCA requires only its leaders, not its members, to agree with its religious beliefs.) He 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 began to allow, and in some instances facilitate, 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 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.
Religious Students’ Rights are Protected by Federal Law
CLS was actively involved in the passage of the EAA. 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.
CLS’ Center for Law and Religious Freedom Intervenes on Behalf of FCA Students
At the request of FCA, CLS’ Center for Law and Religious Freedom sent district officials a demand letter documenting the district’s numerous violations of the Equal Access Act and First Amendment. Center attorneys are currently waiting for a response from the district.
Campus Access – Some school districts continue to ignore students’ rights under the EAA and the First Amendment. However, students do not check their First Amendment freedoms at the schoolhouse gate. Religious freedom organizations, like CLS, need to stand in the breach and protect students’ rights to encourage one another in their faith at school.
Religious Community – The Supreme Court has unanimously recognized that religious communities should be allowed to select those who will guide them in their faith without interference from the government; however, government institutions have conditioned certain generally available benefits on religious organizations forfeiting their rights to choose their leaders.