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Powell Declines To Declare Mobile Board in Contempt

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Washington--U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell declined last week to begin contempt-of-court proceedings against the Mobile County, Ala., school board for allegedly ignoring an injunction the Justice handed down earlier this year barring teacher-led prayer in the state's public schools.

The Mobile school board has been the target of a lawsuit filed by a parent of three schoolchildren. Justice Powell told the parent, Ishmael Jaffree, a self-proclaimed agnostic, that he would have to "seek relief in [an] appropriate lower court."

Mr. Jaffree's lawsuit gained widespread national attention in January when U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand upheld the constitutionality of state laws that allow teachers to lead willing students in prayer and to provide them with a suggested invocation. (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1983.) Since the passage of those laws, the Mobile school board has informally allowed teachers to lead their students in voluntary prayer.

Judge Hand, in ruling against Mr. Jaffree's position, asserted that the framers of the Constitution intended only to prevent the federal government, and not the states, from establishing religion.

About a month later, Justice Powell issued a one-paragraph order that stayed the ruling and reinstated a previous injunction stopping prayer in the state's schools until the case, Jaffree v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile, could be decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Oral arguments were heard in the case earlier last month.

In other action on the issue of school prayer, the Court last week refused to review, "for want of a substantial federal question," a lawsuit upholding the dismissal of a Warren County, Pa., teacher who read Bible passages aloud and led students in prayer.

Last September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of Lloyd L. Fink, who had contended that objections to his religious activities impinged on his constitutional right to practice religion.

Warnings Disregarded

In 1978, the parents of two of Mr. Fink's students lodged complaints with the school district's superintendent after they learned that Mr. Fink regularly recited the Lord's Prayer and read aloud from the Bible during classes. Mr. Fink disregarded school officials' warnings to stop praying in front of students. He was dismissed by the officials in April 1978. The case is Fink v. Warren County Board of Education.

In other action last week, the Court:

Agreed to hear a lawsuit challenging the exclusive right of a community college's faculty union to select participants in state-mandated conferences with college officials.

Under a Minnesota collective-bargaining statute, employers are required to "meet and confer" on a regular basis with panels of employees who have been selected by their official bargaining agent. A community-college faculty member who is not a member of the Minnesota Community College Faculty Associ-ation, an affiliate of the National Education Association, challenged the statute in federal court.

In April 1982, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the practice of restricting participation in the meetings to union members violated a long-standing tradition of permitting all faculty members to become involved in school governance. The panel was careful to note, however, that its ruling did not extend to precollegiate levels of education, said Eric R. Miller, a lawyer representing the faculty union in the case, Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight and Minneapolis Community College v. Knight.

Announced that on April 18 it would hear oral arguments in three lawsuits that are being watched closely by the education community.

Allegedly Misspent Aid

Two linked cases, Bell v. New Jersey and Bell v. Pennsylvania, challenge the right of the U.S. Education Department to force the two states to pay back millions of dollars in allegedly misspent federal aid to disadvantaged children. The states claim that the alleged funding irregularities occurred at a time when regulations governing the program were vague and when the states had no authority to seek judicial review of federal auditors' findings.

Another case, Mueller v. Allen, challenges the constitutionality of a Minnesota law that permits parents to deduct from their state income taxes certain expenses they incur in sending their children to elementary and secondary schools, including private institutions.

In another linked pair of cases, the Court has decided to rule on whether a state can bypass its "first hired, last fired" laws for municipal employees in order to protect the jobs of recently hired minority workers. The two cases, which have been consolidated, are Boston Firefighters Union v. naacp and Boston Police Association v. Castro.

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