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Pa. District's Service Mandate Found Constitutional

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A Pennsylvania school district's requirement that high school students perform 60 hours of unpaid community service in order to graduate was found constitutional by a federal appeals court last week.

The ruling is believed to be the first by a federal appellate court on the constitutionality of public school community-service requirements, which are increasing in popularity.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a lower court's decision last year to dismiss a lawsuit filed by parents of children who attend schools in the Bethlehem Area School District. (See Education Week, April 22, 1992.)

The parents maintain that the requirement, adopted in 1990, violates their children's First Amendment right to freedom of expression by forcing them to declare a belief in the value of altruism. They also claim it violates the 13th Amendment's prohibition against involuntary servitude.

The parents had sought a permanent injunction barring the policy's enforcement. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1990.)

Not an Expressive Act

The appeals court found that the performance of community service is not an expressive act, adding that "to the extent that there is an implicit value judgment underlying the program, it is not materially different'' from discouraging drug use or premature sexual activity or encouraging exercise and good eating habits.

As to the involuntary-servitude claim, the court said: "There is no basis in fact or logic which would support analogizing a mandatory community-service program in a public high school to slavery.''

"An educational requirement,'' the court continued, "does not become involuntary servitude merely because one of the stated objectives of the program is that the students will work 'without receiving pay.' ''

Michael I. Levin, who represented the school district, called the decision "marvelous.''

Eric R. Strauss, the lawyer for the parents, said he was "surprised and disappointed'' at the ruling and said it "vests in all of our public schools now a tremendous amount of power.''

Mr. Strauss said mandating service is akin to a school encouraging the practice of "safe sex'' by saying, " 'By gosh, you're going to use a condom or you're not going to graduate.' ''

He said his clients had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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