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Iowa Court Says State Has 'Clear Right' To Regulate Church Schools

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Iowa school officials have "a clear right" to ensure that private religious schools employ certified teachers and comply with state curriculum requirements, the state's highest court ruled late last month.

The supreme court, in a 6-to-3 decision, upheld a county district judge's finding in March 1983 that a group of parents violated the state's compulsory-attendance law by sending their children to a school established by the Calvary Baptist Church in Charles City.

The dissenting justices contended that the church members should have been exempted from the requirements under a 15-year-old amendment to the law that has been applied only to members of the state's Amish community.

The Iowa school-attendance law requires parents to send their children to public schools or to private schools that employ state-certified teachers and offer instructional programs equivalent to those in public schools. The case, Pruessner v. Benton, began in 1981 when the church's pastor refused to submit data on teacher certification and the school's curriculum to the Charles City school board, provoking the board to take the church to court.

Branstad Seeks Accommodation

Shortly after the court's May 22 decision, Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters in Des Moines that he would attempt to seek some sort of accommodation with church leaders who contend that the compulsory-attendance law violates their congregations' religious beliefs.

"It is a sensitive thing," the Governor said. "I don't want to see what happened in Nebraska happen in Iowa."

Governor Branstad apparently was referring to a widely-publicized legal battle in the neighboring state that resulted in the jailing of members of the Faith Baptist Church in Louisville and the repeated jailing of its pastor for their refusal to comply with state laws governing the operation of private schools. (See Education Week, May 23, 1984.)

Similar legal skirmishes have broken out in Maine, Michigan, and other states as some religious groups have adopted an increasingly confrontational stance against what they perceive as excessive state intrusion into church-school affairs.

Federal Lawsuit

Although the legal battle in Iowa apparently has been settled at the state level, two other Baptist churches have filed a similar lawsuit challenging the attendance law in federal district court. The case, Fellowship Baptist Church v. Benton, has been scheduled for trial in August.

"These churches do not want to be a law unto themselves and do not want to be antagonistic toward government. They just want to be able to obey their conscience to God," said Daniel Loomis, a lawyer with a Cleveland, Ohio, law firm that represents the Iowa churches and acted as counsel to church members involved in the Nebraska lawsuit.

"These schools give an excellent education to these children," Mr. Loomis continued. "But the issue is not whether they are getting a good education. It is whether the churches must be licensed by the state to do what God has told them to do."

According to Mr. Loomis, the leaders of some 24 churches opposed to the law hope to resolve their differences with the state "before this breaks out into a confrontation."

"Go back in Iowa history and you'll find pictures of police running through fields trying to catch Amish children or trying to incarcerate their parents," he said. "That's what we want to try to avoid."

Mr. Loomis noted that the church leaders pressed for the passage of a measure in the most recent session of the state legislature that would have eased the requirement regarding teacher certification. The bill reached the floor of the Senate, but was sent back to committee and was not acted upon again in the legislative session that ended on May 3.

Court's Decision

Writing for the Iowa Supreme Court's majority, Justice K. David Harris held that the the state requirements do not represent an intrusion into religious affairs in violation of the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

"While the state authority to intrude into private religious schools is .ar authority, even a duty, does exist," Justice Harris wrote. "The state has a clear right to set minimum educational standards for all its children and a corresponding responsibility to see to it that those standards are honored."

The court's majority also rejected the church members' argument that they should have been found immune from the law's requirements under what is commonly known in the state as the "Amish exemption."

The principal difference between Amish children and the children of the church members is "the world for which the children here will have to be prepared," the majority held. "They will have to compete with well-educated children and will associate with them in a society very different from the simple, rural, and largely isolated world that lies ahead for Amish children."

The dissenting justices departed from the majority on this point. The exemption, they said, "provides an escape hatch to accommodate those with sincere religious beliefs that are substantially at variance with public education under our statutes."

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