Despite the threat of a lawsuit, Bozeman High School will continue to treat the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as an unofficial rather than official school club, based on the Montana Constitution’s ban on public schools advocating religion.
Bozeman School Superintendent Bob Connors said Thursday that school officials have reached that conclusion after consulting with School Board trustees and attorney Elizabeth Kaleva of Missoula, recommended by the school district’s insurance company.
Last week a national group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, sent Bozeman school officials a letter raising the specter of a lawsuit if the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Bozeman High wasn’t reinstated as an official school club by the Dec. 18 deadline it set.
Attorney Jonathan Larcomb of Virginia, senior counsel for the Center for Academic Freedom, part of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said Thursday if school officials intend to withhold official recognition from the student club, they’re “violating the Constitution and their own policy.”
“They’re treating the FCA differently than other clubs,” Larcomb said. “They’re singling them out. … Religious students don’t check their rights to free speech at the doors of schools.”
The alliance, which the New York Times reported had more than 3,000 lawyers working on behalf of its causes and more than $50 million in revenue in 2016, won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 representing a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because of his Christian faith.
Connors said recognizing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as an official high school club would mean “excessive entanglement in recognizing a religious group” and violate the Montana Constitution’s Article X, section 7.
That section, “nondiscrimination in education,” states in part: “No sectarian tenets” or religious beliefs “shall be advocated in any public educational institution of the state.”
Connors said yes, there could be a lawsuit.
“That’s why we’re in consultation with lawyers,” he said. “It is my understanding as an educator this has been adjudicated. I’m a teacher, not a lawyer.”
As an unofficial club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes can continue to hold regular meetings at Bozeman High as it has for several years. The club can still put up flyers around school announcing events.
The main difference is that as an unofficial club, their flyers now carry a yellow sticker instead of a green sticker, and the club cannot make announcements over the high school’s public address system.
Larcomb argued in his letter to Bozeman officials that withdrawing official status from the club violates the First Amendment, the federal Equal Access Act and the school district’s own policies.
Larcomb accused Bozeman officials of singling out the Fellowship of Christian Athletes because they disagree with its creed or religion.
“The Montana Constitution doesn’t trump federal law or the Constitution,” Larcomb said.
Bozeman High Principal Dan Mills said outside clubs or groups whose posters get yellow stickers include the Montana Wilderness School and Educational First Tours, which offer students the chance to take trips abroad.
The green stickers say: “These materials and/or events are sponsored or endorsed by the Bozeman Public Schools.” The yellow stickers say, “These materials and/or events are not sponsored or endorsed by the Bozeman Public Schools.”
School administrators acted after four Bozeman High girls complained that the national Fellowship of Christian Athletes discriminates against gay and lesbian students. They pointed to the FCA statement of faith and pledge of sexual purity – required of adult leaders, not of student members – arguing these depict homosexuality as a sin. One mother said the girls are concerned about protecting LBGTQ students, who face higher risk of suicide.
Three FCA students spoke this month to the School Board, saying that their club welcomes everyone and offers students love and respect. Larcomb said the alliance now represents the three FCA students.
Connors said the four girls who first raised the issue have offered to meet with the FCA students to discuss things.
If the dispute does go to court, Connors said the decision on how to respond would not be his alone, but would be made in consultation with the attorney, insurance company, School Board trustees and the community.
“That’s a tough thing when outside groups jump into a small town like Bozeman,” Connors said. “We want to do the right thing for the kids.”
If anything, Connors said, this issue could make students “more enlightened as they leave Bozeman High.”