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High Court To Rule on Students' Right To Hold Religious Meetings at School

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear a case involving the politically sensitive issue of whether high-school students should be allowed to hold religious meetings on school grounds.

A Williamsport, Pa., student group was joined by the Reagan Administration in urging the Court to review a federal appeals court's July 1984 ruling that such meetings are prohibited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit came shortly after the Senate and the House passed legislation requiring public schools to provide all student-initiated groups "equal access" to school facilities. The measure was signed by President Reagan in August. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

Although the case, Bender v. The Williamsport Area School District (Case No. 84-773), does not involve an alleged violation of the new Equal Access Act, the student group and the Administration both argued that the Third Circuit Court's decision would cast doubt on the act's constitutionality if it is allowed to stand.

Church-State Issues

The Court's decision to review the Bender case marks the fourth time during the course of the past year that it has agreed to examine the issue of church-state relations in the context of public education.

Among the issues already on its docket are the constitutionality of state laws providing for a "moment of silence" at the start of the school day and of state and federal laws that provide public aid to private-school students. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1984.) Decisions in those cases could be handed down at any time.

Lawsuit's Beginnings

The Bender lawsuit was initiated in June 1982 by 10 students and their parents after Williamsport school officials informed them that existing case law at the time prohibited them from permitting religious activities on school property. The students alleged that the school policy deprived them of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, freedom of association, and equal protection under the law.

A federal district judge held for the student group in May 1983, ruling that the school district would not violate the establishment clause by accommodating the students' religious speech. A divided panel of the Third Circuit Court reversed the lower court's decision last July. (See Education Week, Aug. 22, 1984.)

"School administrators across the country share the confusion of the Williamsport school officials as to the constitutionality of equal access for high-school students," the students' lawyers argued in papers filed with the Court. "The federal courts and school administrators need the guidance of this Court to resolve the confusion created by the conflict" between lower-court decisions barring student-led prayer meetings in high schools and the Court's 1981 decision in Widmar v. Vincent, which upheld similar meetings at the collegiate level.

'Inherently Implausible'

"According to the Third Circuit, the Constitution requires public high schools to discriminate against religious speech, even though it forbids public universities from doing so," said the students. "This result is inherently implausible."

The students also argued that the Third Circuit Court's decision frustrates the intent of the Equal Access Act. "Congress passed [the act] in an attempt to alleviate the confusion of school administrators pending guidance from this court," they said. "However, its success in easing the confusion is presently unclear."

The Reagan Administration made a similar argument in the papers it filed with the Court.

"If allowed to stand, the decision of the court of appeals would cast doubt on the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act, and would frustrate the Congress' objective of resolving the constitutional issue with a minimum of additional, costly litigation," it said.

The Court also took action last week in cases involving the following topics:

Federal-State Relations. In a controversial decision, the Court reversed a precedent it set nine years ago in which it stated that the Congress could not enforce federal minimum-wage and overtime requirements against state and local government agencies because these were "in areas of traditional government functions."

Writing for the majority in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (No. 82-1913), Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun said the 1976 standard protecting the municipal transit authority from some federal regulations of commerce is not only "unsound in principle [but] unworkable in practice."

Having overturned the 1976 standard, Justice Blackmun said that "the principal and basic limit" on federal regulation of states and localities in matters of commerce is "the built-in restraints that our system provides through state participation in federal government action."

"The political process ensures that laws that unduly burden the states will not be promulgated," he said.

Special Education. Without comment, the Court declined to re-view a federal appeals court's ruling requiring the state of Georgia to provide more than its traditional 180 days of schooling for mentally retarded students.

Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that the state's refusal to provide instruction over the summer for such students violated rights guaranteed them under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142.

Nothing in the law "communicated to participating states that they might become obligated to provide handicapped children with special education on a year-round basis," the state argued unsuccessfully in papers it filed with the Court in McDaniel v. Georgia Association of Retarded Citizens (No. 84-888).

It also argued that the appeals court's decision requiring year-round schooling favored a "behavioral" approach to education over a "developmental" approach. The Justice's 1982 decision in Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the state said, prohibits federal courts from choosing between competing educational theories.

Union-Security Laws. The Justices also declined to review a ruling by the Third Circuit Court upholding a New Jersey law that permits unions to use a portion of nonmembers' "agency-shop" fees to cover the cost of certain lobbying activities.

The law was challenged in Smith v. Robinson (No. 84-920) by teachers from several school districts in the state and a group of professors from Rutgers University, who argued that the provision violated their free-speech rights.

The teachers and professors also unsuccessfully argued that a rebate procedure set up under the law violated their rights to due process of law.

Fundamentalist Christian Schools. The Court declined to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in a case stemming from the padlocking in 1982 of the Rev. Everett Sileven's Louisville, Neb., church.

A state court instructed police to lock entrances to the church building after Mr. Sileven ignored an injunction to shut down the church's school. Before locking the building, police forcibly removed worshipers gathered inside for a prayer vigil.

The worshipers, arguing that the court order did not authorize their removal, filed suit against state and local government officials, claiming that their forced removal violated rights guaranteed them under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

The state, in Tesch v. McCurry (No. 84-897), argued that the state and local officials named in the suit were immune from such suits because they were carrying out facially valid orders from a judge.

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