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Justices Turn Down Appeal in Tennessee Textbook Case

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand an appellate ruling that a Tennessee school district did not violate the rights of fundamentalist Christian children by using reading textbooks they opposed on religious grounds.

Without comment, the High Court declined to review the ruling in the nationally watched case, Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education (Case No. 87-1100).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last August overturned a federal district judge's decision requiring the district to allow the pupils to learn reading at home.

The Justices' decision not to hear the case marked the latest legal set4back for fundamentalist Christians who argue that public schools do not accommodate their beliefs.

In December, lawyers for a Mobile, Ala., citizens' group decided not to challenge a federal appeals court's reversal of a controversial ruling forbidding the use of 44 textbooks in that state's schools on the grounds that they unconstitutionally promoted the "religion" of secular humanism.

In an earlier defeat, the High Court last June struck down a Louisiana law that required schools to give balanced treatment to the theories of evolution and "creation science."

The Mozert case stemmed from the Hawkins County school board's decision in 1983 to adopt a Holt, Rinehart, & Winston reading series for use in grades 1 through 8.

Seven fundamentalist Christian families in Church Hill filed suit against the board that year, charging that the books promoted values--including feminism, situational ethics, and one-world government--that ran counter to their religious beliefs.

The school board suspended several of the children when they refused to read the textbooks.

In October 1986, U.S. District Judge Thomas G. Hull ruled that the children's First Amendment right to free exercise of religion was violated by exposure to the books. He ordered the board to permit the children to "opt out" of the classes.

A three-judge appellate panel voted unanimously to overturn Judge Hull's decision. In its opinion, the court said the plaintiffs' rights had not been violated because they were not required to believe the ideas expressed in the stories. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

The Supreme Court's refusal to hear an appeal "is a good victory for the freedom to learn and excellence in public education," said John H. Buchanan, chairman of People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that assisted in the defense of the challenged books.

"Had the plaintiffs prevailed, it could have caused chaos in public education across the country," he said.

The Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler, & Pickering donated nearly $1 million in legal work in defending the school board, Mr. Buchanan said.

Michael P. Farris, the lawyer for the parents, called the decision "Christian bashing."

"It's time for people with deeply held religious convictions of every persuasion to get out of the public schools," he said. "If public schools are dumb enough to follow the lead of the [Hawkins County] school district, they will help the exodus of children from the public schools."

He predicted that the option of home schooling will become more popular as a result of such rulings.

At the time the suit was filed, Mr. Farris was a lawyer for Concerned Women for America, a conservative group that backed the plaintiffs. He is now president of a Virginia-based organization that provides legal aid to parents who wish to teach their children at home.

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