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Sex-Harassment, Civil-Rights Cases on High Court's Docket

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court opens a new term this week with only one school-related case on its docket, but educators will also be watching the outcome of cases dealing with sexual discrimination in the workplace and the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

The High Court was to open its term on Oct. 4, and arguments are scheduled for Oct. 6 in Florence County School District 4 v. Carter (Case No. 91-1523), which deals with private-school placement of children with disabilities. (See story, page 1).

In an important case dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, the Court could further define what constitutes a hostile work environment.

In a case from Tennessee, Harris v. Forklift Systems Inc. (No. 92-1168), the Court will review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that an employee who was exposed to vulgar comments from her boss could not win a sexual-harassment suit because she did not prove that the comments caused her psychological injury.

Two other federal courts of appeals have also required proof of psychological injury in sexual-harassment suits; three other appeals courts have applied a different standard, requiring only that a reasonable person find such comments offensive for a plaintiff to win a suit.

The Court will hear arguments in the case on Oct. 13.

On the same day, the Court will consider two cases that will determine whether the Civil Rights Act of 1991 applies to job-discrimination suits that were pending when it was enacted.

The Bush Administration had taken the position that the law should not be applied retroactively to pending cases. The Clinton Administration has taken the opposite position. The cases are Landgraf v. USI Film Products (No. 92-757) and Rivers v. Roadway Express Inc. (No. 92-938).

Cases Seeking Review

The High Court has pending before it a number of education-related appeals, and it was expected to grant or deny review of many of them this week.

Among the most closely watched of these is a challenge to a Pennsylvania school district's mandatory community-service program.

In Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District (No. 92-1983), the parents of a high school girl challenged the district's requirement that all high school students perform 60 hours of service.

The family argued that the program violates the 13th Amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude, and that, by deciding which activities are acceptable, the school district imposes moral beliefs on students in violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

The mandatory-service program was upheld by a federal district court and by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The High Court will also consider appeals in several cases dealing with religious freedom.

A Washington State school district is asking the Court to take another look at the 1984 Equal Access Act, which requires schools receiving federal funds to allow student religious clubs to operate on the same basis as other clubs.

The High Court upheld the law in 1991 in Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens.

The Renton, Wash., school district has asked the Court whether the federal law takes precedence over the state constitution, which has a strong provision barring entanglement between religion and public schools. That appeal is Renton School District v. Garnett (No. 92-1890).

Sometime this fall, the Court will decide whether to hear an appeal from a private school in Hawaii concerning a requirement that its teachers be Protestant.

Religious Rule Challenged

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Kamehameha Schools did not qualify for a religious exemption from the federal Title VII employment-discrimination law because it was not a primarily religious institution. The school has appealed in Kamehameha Schools v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 93-171).

The High Court will also decide sometime this fall whether to review a New York State high-court ruling that invalidated the creation of a special school district for disabled children from the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Kiryas Joel.

The sect maintains its own schools, but cannot afford to run a school for disabled students. In 1989, state lawmakers created the special district, which was challenged by the state school-boards association. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

The Supreme Court this summer granted an emergency stay of the New York State high court's ruling, which kept the special school district from being dismantled before the start of the school year. The appeal is Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet.

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