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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Controversial School Appeals

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The Supreme Court last week agreed to consider three of the most sensitive issues in education: school boards' authority to remove "objectionable" books from school libraries; the right of states to curtail busing for desegregation; and the tax-exempt status of private schools that discriminate on the basis of race.

In Pico v. Board of Education of Island Trees Union Free School District, the Court will consider whether students have a constitutional right, under the First Amendment, to freedom from school-board control over which books will be available in public-school libraries.

Books Considered Offensive

The suit arose from a Long Island school board's decision, five years ago, to remove from school libraries nine books, including The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. The board members considered the books offensive to community values.

Five secondary-school students, including Steven Pico, challenged the decision in federal district court, claiming that the board's removal of the books was an unconstitutional act of censorship.

The lower court dismissed the case, but in a decision conflicting with opinions from other federal appellate courts, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the case be brought to trial.

Definitive Standards

The Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the students are entitled to a trial--and in the process, it may set definitive First-Amendment standards for the selection of materials to be available in public schools, analysts believe.

"Starting off here, it looks like this one is a broad question," said Robert Pressman, an attorney with the Center for Law and Education in Cambridge, Mass.

"I think they're going to be looking at the whole area here," Mr. Pressman said, "where school boards say they're exercising their prerogative to decide what materials will be available to students when they're deciding the curriculum."

In the two desegregation cases it has accepted, the Court will consider the constitutionality of anti-busing laws established by state referen3dums in Washington and California.

The Court last addressed busing in 1979, in cases involving Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. The justices then upheld the authority of lower federal courts to order busing in cases where school boards or other state authorities had been found guilty of intentionally segregating students.

Broad Opinion Unlikely

But neither of the cases now before the Court involves the authority of federal courts to order desegregation. Thus, the Supreme Court is not considered likely to issue a broad opinion on busing; nor is it expected to re-examine its past rulings on the issue.

In Washington, three school boards--in Seattle, Tacoma, and Pasco--have undertaken busing without having been ordered to do so.

In 1978, the state's voters approved an initiative restricting school boards' authority to reassign most students beyond neighborhood schools. Lower federal courts have found the law unconstitutional on the grounds that it allows busing for some purposes--such as special education--but not for racial balance.

In the lower courts, the U.S. Department of Justice supported the authority of the local boards to initiate busing plans. But last month, the Justice Department changed its position and asked the Supreme Court to reverse the lower-court rulings.

The California case involves the right of the state's voters to relax state standards on racial imbalance in the schools. California once had one of the strictest state desegregation laws in the country, requiring that racial imbalances be corrected even in the absence of proof of past discrimination. The state courts, on the basis of that law, ordered busing in several communities, including Los Angeles.

The state's voters in 1979 passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting state courts from ordering busing except where there was proof of intentional segregation. The mandatory busing plan in Los Angeles was dismantled as a result.

Though the circumstances in the two states are different, the constitutional issues are similar. In both cases, the Supreme Court will be asked to decide whether the voters' intent was discriminatory.

Tax-Exempt Status

The third education issue to be considered by the Court is whether fundamentalist Christian schools may retain their tax-exempt status if they discriminate against blacks.

In Goldsboro Christian Schools v. U.S., a North Carolina elementary and secondary school maintains that religious doctrine requires it to exclude black students. Thus, school officials argue, the government's attempt to deny the school tax-exempt status violates religious rights.

Since 1970, the Internal Revenue Service (irs) has held that institutions are not entitled to tax-exempt status if they practice racial discrimination. The irs revoked the exemption of Bob Jones University in South Carolina and never gave one to the Goldsboro school. The Reagan Administration has asked the Court to uphold the irs policy.

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