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Supreme Court Allows Districts To Charge for Bus Service

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WASHINGTON--States do not violate poor families' constitutional right to equal protection under the law by requiring them to pay for their children's transportation to school, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Acting in a case of particular importance to rural states, the Justices held 5 to 4 on June 24 that North Dakota's system of providing free bus service in some districts but not in others was permissible under the 14th Amendment.

In other action during the closing days of its 1987-88 session, the Court:

  • Ruled that a 1981 federal law that provides grants to religious groups for counseling teen-agers to abstain from sex is constitutional "on its face.'' The Justices, however, sent the case back to a federal district judge to determine whether the manner in which the so-called "chastity act'' has been applied violates the First Amendment.
  • Held that female and minority employees may use statistical evidence to prove that their employers' "subjective'' criteria for hiring and promotion have a disparate negative impact on them.
    Declined to review federal appellate rulings that upheld Louisiana's school-finance system and freed the state of Tennessee from responsibility for helping to finance school-desegregation efforts in metropolitan Nashville.

Transportation Case

At issue in the school-transportation case, Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools (Case No. 86-7113), was a North Dakota law that provides tax incentives to districts that close schools and move students to centralized facilities in order to cut costs.

The 263 districts that have "reorganized'' since the law was passed are required to provide students with free transportation. The state's 48 "nonreorganized'' districts, however, retain the option of charging students for bus service.

Paula Kadrmas, the mother of a 4th grader in the Dickinson district who said she could not afford the district's $97 bus fee, filed suit in a state court in 1986. She argued that the state's transportation policy denied her daughter equal educational opportunities in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The trial court and the state supreme court both ruled that the policy was constitutional.

A majority of the Justices agreed with the state courts.

"A state's decision to allow local school boards the option of charging patrons a user fee for bus service is constitutionally permissible,'' Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the majority opinion. She was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Byron H. White.

"The Constitution does not require that such service be provided at all,'' Justice O'Connor concluded, "and it is difficult to imagine why choosing to offer the service should entail a constitutional obligation to offer it for free.''

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall accused the majority of continuing "a retreat from the promise of equal educational opportunity.'' He was joined by Associate Justice William J. Brennan. Associate Justices Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens joined in a separate dissenting opinion.

'Chastity Act'

The Court divided along identical lines in its 5-to-4 ruling in the "chastity act'' case, Bowen v. Kendrick (No. 87-253).

The suit involved charges by groups of taxpayers and clergymen and by the American Jewish Congress that the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act violates the First Amendment's prohibition against state establishment of religion. The law authorizes the distribution of grants to a wide array of groups, including church-affiliated organizations, and requires all grantees to describe how they will involve religious groups in their programs to promote sexual abstinence among young people.

A federal district judge ruled in April 1987 that although the law had a valid secular purpose, its requirement that church groups be involved in delivering services to teen-agers unconstitutionally advanced religion.

He also found that the degree of monitoring that would have to occur to ensure that such groups do not proselytize teen-agers would necessarily foster excessive state entanglement with religion. The Reagan Administration appealed the case directly to the High Court.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist noted that the Court had previously ruled that state aid to "pervasively sectarian'' entities, such as parochial schools, was impermissible under the First Amendment.

But, he continued, "there is no reason to assume that the religious organizations which may receive grants [under the pregnancy-prevention program] are 'pervasively sectarian' in the same sense'' that the Court has held church-affiliated schools to be.

Justice Rehnquist likened the church groups that received federal grants to religiously affiliated colleges that receive state and federal construction funds. In several cases in the 1960's and 1970's, the Court upheld the constitutionality of that type of aid to such colleges.

Although the majority held that the law was constitutional on its face, the case was returned to the district court to determine whether particular grants were being administered unconstitutionally.

If the lower court finds that unconstitutional action has occurred, it could order the Health and Human Services Department to rescind grants in such cases. Or, if it determines that the pattern of improper activity is pervasive, it could strike down the entire program.

The majority's ruling that the law is not unconstitutional on its face "marks a sharp departure from our precedents,'' Justice Blackmun argued in a dissent joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens.

Other Action

The law, "without a doubt, endorses religion,'' he wrote. "Given the delicate subject matter and the impressionable audience, the risk that [the law] will convey a message of government endorsement of religion is overwhelming.''
The High Court also acted in the following cases:

  • Watson v. Fort Worth Bank & Trust (No. 86-6139). The Justices ruled 8 to 0 that a former employee of a Texas bank was improperly prevented from using statistics in her effort to prove that she was denied a promotion because she is black.

The decision could subject school districts to more lawsuits by minority and female employees who believe that "subjective'' performance criteria--such as common sense, originality, and good judgment--have a disparate impact against members of their groups.

  • Metropolitan County Board of Education v. Tennessee (No. 87-1774). The Court declined to review a federal appellate decision overturning a lower-court order that required the state to reimburse the Nashville school district for 60 percent of its desegregation costs incurred since March 1981.

Other states fighting similar court orders are expected to cite the appellate ruling, which held that the "sovereign immunity'' clause of the Constitution restricts the power of federal courts to force states to assume costs in desegregation suits.

  • School Board of the Parish of Livingston v. Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (No. 87-1605). The Court let stand a federal appellate ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the state's school-finance system.

The suit was filed in 1985 by parents and school officials from two of the state's 66 parish districts. The Louisiana legislature recently approved a measure that drastically altered the method of school funding that was challenged in the case.

  • Florida v. Long (No. 86-1685). The Court ruled 5 to 4 that pension systems, including those for school employees, are not required to award retroactive benefits to employees whose benefits had been reduced prior to 1983 because of their sex. In that year, the Court barred unequal pension payments on the basis of sex.

In the Florida case, the Court held that the state need not award retroactive benefits to certain male state and local employees because the state's payment of proportionately smaller benefits to them than to women had been legal until the 1983 ruling.

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