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Private Schools' Conflict With Nebraska Officials Heats Up

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At least eight fundamentalist Christian churches in Nebraska are currently involved in legal disputes with the state over the regulation of the schools they operate, and that number is expected to grow unless the state legislature can arrive at a regulatory scheme that is acceptable to both sides--something it found impossible to do last year.

Last week, in another step in the oldest and most publicized of the Nebraska cases, a U.S. district judge in Omaha denied a preliminary injunction prohibiting the state of Nebraska from closing--once again--the Faith Christian School in Louisville.

Subject to Arrest and Jailing

As a result, the parents of Faith Christian's students are now subject to arrest and jailing, and their lawyers plan an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Kansas City. The pastor of the church, the Rev. Everett Sileven, is already serving a four-month jail term.

The major point of contention in this and other suits like it is the Nebraska state law requiring all public- and private-school teachers to be certified by the state.

According to Patricia M. Lines, an expert on state regulation of private schools at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, Nebraska is one of a handful of states that require state certification of private-school teachers, and its county attorneys are particularly vigorous in enforcing this law.

[A bill that would have relieved private schools from most state requirements died during the last legislative session. It would have required private schools to meet only state fire and safety codes. An amendment added to the bill also would have set minimum college-degree requirements for elementary and secondary teachers.]

The conflicts have increased in recent years, according to Commissioner of Education Anne Campbell, because of increased efforts by counties to enforce state education laws.

A spokesman in the Nebraska attorney general's office mentioned another reason: the appearance for the first time in recent years of private schools that are unwilling to comply.

The Faith Christian School case may indicate the complexity and court time involved in handling such cases, as many of Nebraska's 93 county attorneys attempt to enforce state private-school regulations.

Mr. Sileven, who believes that the state has no right to regulate his school because it is part of a church, has been fighting the state in court since 1979, when a state district court judge ruled that he was in viola-tion of state law.

In 1981, the state supreme court upheld the county district court's decision. Mr. Sileven attempted to gain a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, but that request was denied last October. The minister reopened the school last spring in defiance of the court orders and was briefly jailed for contempt of court.

The school reopened this fall, and Mr. Sileven was ordered by the court to return to jail.

Cooperative Effort

The strict enforcement apparently has served to bring Christian-school officials together in an effort to fight state control.

In direct response, a consortium of 100 Nebraska churches and 20 schools, called Nebraskans for Religious Freedom, has formed to fight state control over religiously affiliated private schools.

Generally, said the Rev. Carl L. Godwin, who heads the group, the publicity surrounding the Faith Christian School has been good for his group's cause. "More people are beginning to see this is a religious- freedom issue," he said. "The more the state pushes, the more counterproductive it becomes for them."

Mr. Godwin's Park West Christian School in Lincoln is the subject of a suit similar to the one filed against the Faith Christian School.

There are several other similar cases in progress in the state.

In York, the county attorney has filed a suit for a temporary restraining order against the Good-Life Pentecostal School.

The issues are the same as in the Faith Christian School case, according to County Attorney Vincent Valentino, and progress in the year-old York case has fluctuated as the Louisville case "goes up and down the appellate ladder," he said.

The school has reopened this fall, although Mr. Valentino informed school officials last spring that he would ask for a court order to close it if it did reopen.

Similar cases are at various stages in Lincoln, North Platte, Morrill, Gering, and Grand Island.

In Chadron, a suit on behalf of the staff, parents, and children of the 40-student Chadron Christian School has been filed against the state attorney general and the commissioner of education in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

The suit charges that state regulations violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, 10th, and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and various provisions in the Nebraska constitution, according to Robert L. Ohlmann, pastor of the Bible Baptist Church and administrator of the Chadron Christian School.

A federal judge will soon decide whether to hear the case, Mr. Ohlmann said.

And as of late last week, the Faith Christian School remained open and Mr. Sileven remained in jail. The Rev. Jim Lee of Rough and Ready, Calif., who is serving as pastor of the church until Mr. Sileven is released, said ministers from 27 states and Canada have volunteered to operate the school and are ready to go to jail, one by one if necessary, to keep the school open.

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