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High Court Facing Church-State Issues

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Washington--The emotionally charged debate over the relationship between church and state in the public schools will continue to dominate the U.S. Supreme Court's agenda as the Justices open their 1985-86 session this week.

In coming weeks, the Court will hear arguments in cases involving the constitutionality of student-initiated prayer meetings in public high schools and state aid to college students studying for the ministry.

The Court has also been asked to review cases that deal with the relationship between government and religion in home schooling, local school boards' curriculum decisions, and state regulation of church-operated residential centers for school-aged children.

The Justices will also revisit the equally thorny issue of affirmative action. They will hear arguments on the constitutionality of a Michigan school board's plan that provides for the layoff of senior white teachers in order to preserve the jobs of less-senior minority teachers.

In addition, the Justices are expected to rule on the constitutionality of school-board procedures for collecting "agency fees" from nonunion teachers.

The first major church-state case to be heard this term will be Bender v. Williamsport Area School District (Case No. 84-773), scheduled for argument on Oct. 15.

In Bender, the Court is being asked to determine the constitutionality of student-initiated prayer meetings in public schools. Just days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled last year that such meetings were unconstitutional, the Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which states that such prayer groups must be permitted to meet before or after the start of the school day if the schools involved allow other student groups to hold similar meetings.

The Reagan Administration argues in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case that serious doubt would be cast on the constitutionality of the new law if the Third Circuit court's opinion is allowed to stand.

The Bender case, the Administration argues, is not one in which the government "is being asked to accommodate religion to the point that willing citizens are in danger of being implicated in the practices of others."

"It is not even a case where the special solicitude for religion mandated by the free-exercise clause [of the First Amendment] is brought into play," the Administration's brief says. "In this case, ... the exercise of religion is no more than the exercise of free speech: It requires no special protection beyond that accorded all legitimate expression, and certainly warrants no less."

John C. Youngman Jr.--the former Williamsport, Pa., school-board member who kept the lawsuit alive after the board decided not to pursue the matter--will argue the case before the Court. He contends in his brief that the appeals-court decision should be upheld.

"This is another attempt to put organized religious exercise and prayer into the public secondary schools at a time when the students are compelled to be there by law," he says. "This attempt must fail."

Other Religion Cases

The Court will hear arguments on Nov. 6 in Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (No. 84-1070), in which it has been asked to rule on a state agency's refusal to provide financial aid to a college student preparing for the ministry. A federal appeals court ruled that such aid represents an unconstitutional advancement of religion by the government.

In addition, the Court will decide this term whether to review three other cases involving the separation of church and state in education.

In Grove v. Mead School District #354 (No. 84-1984), the Justices have been asked to rule on the use in a high-school literature class of a novel that, according to the plaintiffs, "directly parallels and promotes the ideology of secular humanism." The case stems from protests over a Washington State school district's approval for classroom use of The Learning Tree, in which major characters refer to Jesus Christ as "a long-legged white son of a bitch" and "a poor white-trash god."

The Justices have also been asked to review Snider v. Virginia (No. 84-1724), in which Catholic parents were convicted of violating the state's compulsory-attendance law by educating their children at home, and Corpus Christi People's Baptist Church v. Texas (No. 84-1791), which involves state regulation of a church-operated residential center for troubled adolescents.

Affirmative Action

In Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (No. 84-1340), which was accepted for review last April, the Court will hear arguments on Nov. 6 on the constitutionality of a Michigan school board's voluntarily adopted policy whereby senior white teachers would be laid off before more recently hired minority teachers.

The Reagan Administration, which strenuously opposes race-conscious affirmative-action remedies, requested permission to participate in oral arguments in the case, but both parties to the suit declined to offer any of their allotted time before the Justices to government lawyers.

The Justices have also been asked to review a federal appeals court's ruling in Marsh v. Board of Education of the City of Flint (No. 84-1859), which upheld the involuntary transfer of a white guidance counselor to a teaching position in order to maintain racial balance in another Michigan school district's counseling staff.

Agency Fees

In Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson (No. 84-1503)--which has been accepted by the Court but not yet scheduled for argument--the Justices will consider whether the system used by the Chicago public schools for deducting fees equivalent to union dues from the paychecks of nonunion teachers violates the teachers' 14th Amendment right to due process.

In September 1984, a federal appeals court ruled that the system negotiated by the Chicago Teachers Union and the school board was unconstitutional. The court held that, at a minimum, the board must develop a new system that ensures "fair notice, a prompt hearing before the board of education or some other state or local agency, ... and a right of judicial review."

Lawyers for the teachers' union argue in a brief filed with the Court that the appeals-court judgment should be struck down because it conflicts with the Court's precedents and imposes "rigid and unworkable" procedural requirements on the board.

The nonunion teachers, meanwhile, argue that the system that was struck down "[amounted] to a scheme for garnishment by the government of the wages of alleged debtors at the unilateral demand of an alleged creditor, and immediate transfer of those monies to the latter without a prior hearing on the merits of either [the union's] claims or the [nonunion] teachers' defenses."

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