Debevoise Files Amicus Brief in Fight Against LGBTQI+ Discrimination in Public School Student Clubs

1 August 2022

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, alongside the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), filed an amicus brief on behalf of NWLC and 21 additional advocacy organizations in Sinclair v. San José Unified School District Board of Education, currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In 2019, the San José school district discovered that a local student chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) made every prospective student leader sign a sexual purity pledge in conformity with the national FCA organization’s mandate. Among other provisions, the pledge required student leaders to agree to uphold the belief that “neither heterosexual sex outside of marriage nor any homosexual act constitute an [acceptable] alternative lifestyle.”

The club (Pioneer FCA) failed to follow the school district’s nondiscrimination policy when it essentially said no student may fully participate in the club if they are LGBTQI+ or support LGBTQI+ rights. Despite its avowed intent to discriminate against students, Pioneer FCA applied for official school recognition. The school applied its nondiscrimination policy and rejected Pioneer FCA’s request but still allowed it to meet as a student group. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty brought a lawsuit to try to force the school to officially recognize Pioneer FCA.  The FCA’s lawsuit claims that the school’s refusal to grant the local chapter official recognition was motivated by hostility toward the group’s religious beliefs—rather than FCA’s blatant violation of the nondiscrimination policy. FCA argues that the school district, in rejecting Pioneer FCA for its discriminatory practices while simultaneously allowing sex-separated school sports teams, non-exclusionary student clubs that promote opportunities for certain groups, and accommodations for pregnant and parenting students, is granting “selective exemptions” from its nondiscrimination policy. In making this argument, FCA compares its discriminatory beliefs and practices to programs based on, and often required, by civil rights laws.

In the brief filed by NWLC and Debevoise, amici argue that FCA’s analogies are nonsensical because the school’s application of its nondiscrimination policy follows existing civil rights laws, which both protect against discrimination and promote inclusion of groups that have been systematically excluded. A school’s compliance with these civil rights commitments does not constitute “discrimination” and does not open the door for groups like FCA to implement exclusionary policies. NWLC and its partner organizations are asking the Ninth Circuit to affirm a lower court’s ruling in favor of the school district based on established law that permits schools to require compliance with nondiscrimination policies that ensure civil rights protections for all students.

Learn more details about the case and this amicus brief here.

The Debevoise team was led by partner Courtney Dankworth and associate Harold Williford and included associates Joshua Cohen and Isabelle Canaan.