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A.C.L.U. May Challenge Alabama Statute Freeing Church Schools

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A new Alabama law that exempts "church schools" from all forms of state control may soon be the subject of a lawsuit.

"We are very definitely looking at the possibility [of filing suit over the law]" said Mary B. Weidler, executive director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Ms. Weidler said the ACLU's lawyers are looking at possible ways the law might be challenged, but did not want to speculate on what they may be.

The law, which was signed by Alabama Gov. Forrest H. (Fob) James Jr. last month, defines "church schools" as those that "offer instruction in grades K-12 or any combination thereof ... and are operated as a ministry of a local church, group of churches, denominations, and/or associations of churches, on a nonprofit basis, which do not receive any state or federal funding."

Exempt from State Requirements

Under the new law, such schools are exempt from state requirements to hire certified teachers and from state curriculum and attendance-keeping requirements. The schools must continue, however, to meet requirements found in the state's health and fire codes.

The fact that the schools do not have to keep attendance records for the state makes it impossible to enforce the state compulsory-attendance law, which requires that every child between the ages of 7 and 16 attend a public or private school or be instructed by a competent private tutor.

Although parents are asked to fill out a form when they remove children from the public schools to enroll them in church schools, in the opinion of Richard McBride, director of research in the Alabama state department of education and an opponent of the law, there is no mechanism to ensure that parents fill out the form.

A number of states, including North Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa, Louisiana, and Michigan, have dealt or are attempting to deal with the problem of state regulation of church schools, and private-school experts say the issue is likely to continue to get attention in state legislatures.

According to Chris Pipho, deputy director of information at the Education Commission of the states in Denver, Alabama's law is the only decontrol bill passed so far this year.

Generally, at least in the cases of state accreditation and teacher certification, the majority of states exercise very little control over church schools or other private schools, Mr. Pipho said. But among those who do, he added, there has been a push to minimize whatever control exists.

In North Carolina, for example, the state legislature in 1979 did away with all but four requirements for church schools.

They no longer must meet state teacher-certification requirements or curriculum guidelines, and the schools do not have to be accredited by the state. They must, however, take part in statewide standardized testing (or administer voluntarily a nationally recognized standardized test of their own choosing), and take part in statewide competency testing for graduation. They must also obey the state's compulsory-attendance law.

A Michigan bill that would release church schools from all requirements except for those in the state's fire code is still in the education committee of the state's house of representatives. Bills addressing this issue died in the Iowa and Nebraska legislatures this year.--A.H.

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