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Michigan Court Rejects State Control Over Private Schools

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A Michigan judge has ruled that parts of a 1921 law giving the state control over private schools violate the First Amendment rights of religiously affiliated schools in the state.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Ray C. Hotchkiss said on Dec. 29 that state control of the schools both entangled the state in religion and violated the schools' right to the free exercise of religion.

At issue in the case, Sheridan Road Baptist Church v. Michigan, are state regulations requiring: annual reporting of enrollment and teacher-certification information; a secular curriculum comparable to that provided in the local public-school district; and employment of state-certified teachers.

The court ruled that the state did not have a legal right to require certification of teachers in religious schools, or to mandate a "comparable" curriculum.

On the issue of teacher certification, Judge Hotchkiss wrote, "Defendants have failed to show that teacher certification is a reasonable or effective means to carry out a legitimate state purpose. Further, this court is of the opinion that teacher certification causes excessive government entanglement with religion."

The court upheld requirements for annual student-enrollment reports, and said the state may obtain information on teacher certification, but only for statistical and comparative purposes, not for use in administrative action against religious schools.

The state's right to impose health and safety requirements was not challenged in the suit.

Richard P. Gartner, an assistant attorney general in Michigan who worked on the case, said an appeal will be filed, probably this month, with the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The state argued, in part, that such "minimal regulations" covering the schools are part of a "compelling state interest in the education of children," and that the First Amendment does not exempt religious organizations from all forms of regulation.

"Teacher certification is designed to help protect the child from incompetent instructors," the state's pretrial brief said.

The case was filed in December 1980 on behalf of two Baptist schools.

Establishment Clause

Although similar cases have been decided in favor of church schools, Mr. Gartner said, this is the first time to his knowledge that a court has struck down a state regulatory scheme based on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Cases have been decided in favor of religious schools in Ohio, Kentucky, and Vermont--all at the state supreme court level--according to Philip J. Murren, who worked for the constitutional lawyer William B. Ball on the side of the plaintiffs.

Mr. Murren said similar cases have been decided in the state's favor in North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska.

The best-known of these cases involves the Faith Christian School in Louisville, Neb.

In that case, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the state's right to regulate private schools, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear further arguments in October 1981.

The school's pastor, Everett Sileven, has been repeatedly jailed for defying court orders to close the school.

Among the other cases still pending is a second Nebraska case. Involving the Bible Baptist Church in Lincoln, Mr. Murren said, this case will raise the "entanglement issue," which he said Mr. Sileven's lawyers failed to do.

Mr. Ball, representing the Maine Association of Christian Schools in another case, is arguing on similar constitutional grounds against the regulation of private schools in that state.

And in Hawaii, a group of churches and ministers has filed a suit in Honolulu's federal district court challenging a law requiring state licensing of private schools.

That challenge, already dealt with in the state supreme court, which upheld the state's regulatory rights, is being mounted by the Christian Law Association of Cleveland.

Mr. Gartner estimated that about 150 private schools in Michigan (out of approximately 1,100) object to the state requirements.

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