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High Court Declines To Review Church-School Appeals

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to review two appeals in which church schools contended that local laws and lower-court decisions violated their constitutional right to free religious practice.

The Justices refused to hear an appeal brought by the First Assembly Church of God in Alexandria, Va., which claimed that city zoning laws prevented it from adequately operating a K-12 school and that summary dismissal of its claims by two lower courts was inappropriate.

To operate a school, the church had to obtain a special-use permit from the city of Alexandria, since it is located in an area zoned for residences. After failing to obtain one in 1975 and 1976, the church was awarded the permit by the city council in September 1982.

According to papers filed with the Court in First Assembly Church of God v. City of Alexandria, Va. (Case No. 84-445), the special-use permit had 12 conditions. The city council then revoked the permit in February 1983, after the church said it would not comply with the conditions regarding attendance limits and the construction of a fence.

The church and a group of parents of students enrolled in the school filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in November 1982. Their Court brief claimed that "the operation of a school in association with the church was based on a fundamental tenet of its faith, that some parents felt that they would be violating the tenets of their religion by not sending their children to a First Assembly school located on the church site."

The district court granted the city's motion for summary judgment in May 1983. On appeal, the the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling.

The city contended in papers filed with the Court that the plaintiffs had failed to show "that any of their religious beliefs or practices are in any way impacted by such noise, traffic control, and safety ordinances"--such as the construction of the fence and the ceiling on enrollment. The brief added that the lower court's decisions "as an affirmation of the city's right to impose traditional zoning regulation on the use of land ... is completely in line" with legal precedent.

Nebraska Case

The Court also left standing a March 1984 decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court upholding a $200-a-day contempt penalty against the North Platte Baptist Church and its pastor for operating a school that did not meet state certification requirements.

The church's K-12 school was ordered shut down by the state in December 1983 because it did not meet several requirements of the state department of education, including one concerning teacher certification.

The state rules governing private religious schools have since been relaxed and the school is operating legitimately during the current school year. (See Education Week, Aug. 29, 1984.)

In North Platte Baptist Church v. Nebraska (No. 83-1974), the church asked the Justices whether a county court could summarily require the school to stop operating "despite the fact that there remained to be determined material factual issues."

Last year, the school's superintendent, the Rev. Robert D. Gelsthorpe, and the church kept the school open after an order to close by the Lincoln County District Court. The district court ordered a contempt fine against the church and Mr. Gelsthorpe of $200 a day each for every day that the school was kept open.

The state supreme court had ruled that its 1981 decision in Douglas v. Faith Baptist Church, which found that the state has a "critical interest" in the education of its children, could be applied to the North Platte case.--jh

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