(Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court on Monday ruled that a school district in San Jose, California, cannot refuse to officially recognize a Christian student group because of a religious pledge that disavows gay marriage it required club leaders to sign.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling held the district violated the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' rights under the U.S. Constitution's 1st Amendment when it revoked its status as an official high school student club.
The FCA is a Christian religious ministry with more than 7,000 student chapters at schools and colleges nationally, including since the early 2000s three schools within the San Jose Unified School District.
FCA and two students sued after the district in 2019 revoked its status as an official club, a status that gave it recruitment and fundraising benefits and access to faculty advisors and priority to on-campus meeting space.
The district cited a statement of faith its leaders must sign that included a belief that sex should be limited to marriage, which is "the union of one man and one woman."
The district concluded the statement violated a non-discrimination policy because gay students could not be officers of the club.
But U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Lee, writing for the majority, said the district selectively enforced that policy and allowed other, secular student groups to maintain discriminatory membership criteria, such as all-girls clubs that bar boys.
Lee said that FCA as a result was likely to succeed in establishing the school violated the U.S. Constitution's protections for free exercise of religion and free speech and that a trial judge wrongly denied it a preliminary injunction.
"Under the First Amendment, our government must be scrupulously neutral when it comes to religion: It cannot treat religious groups worse than comparable secular ones," Lee wrote. "But the School District did just that."
Lee was joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest, a fellow appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump.
U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, dissented, saying given the lack of proof any student would seek recognition of FCA this school year the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek an injunction.
Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for FCA and the students at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a statement said their ruling "has put an end to this discrimination and ensured FCA students are treated fairly and equally."
Stacey Leyton, a lawyer for the district at Altshuler Berzon, did not respond to a request for comment.
The case is Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. San Jose Unified School District, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-15827.
For Fellowship of Christian Athletes: Daniel Blomberg of Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
For San Jose Unified School District: Stacey Leyton of Altshuler Berzon