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Court Declines To Review Service Requirement

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to review the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania school district's community-service requirement.

The High Court's action ended two students' legal challenge of the Bethlehem school district's community-service program and should serve to diminish other districts' fears about adopting such programs, legal experts said.

The appeal was one of several education-related cases the High Court declined to review on Oct. 4, the first day of its new term.

The Court also rejected appeals from a school district seeking to invoke a state constitution to keep student religious groups from meeting in schools, and from a teachers' union arguing for the right to send unstamped letters to its members through a district's in-house mail system.

The community-service case, Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District (Case No. 92-1983), concerned a program established by the district in 1990, which requires high school students to perform 60 hours of community service in order to graduate.

The district maintains a list of some 70 approved service opportunities that includes nursing homes, an AIDS outreach effort, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and a Planned Parenthood chapter.

A student can submit the names of other organizations to a district coordinator for approval or develop an individual service plan, such as tutoring or helping the homeless.

The service requirement was challenged by two students, Lynn Steirer and David Moralis, who contended that it violates the First Amendment's free-speech clause by coercing a "political orthodoxy'' on the value of altruism. The students also argued that the requirement violates the 13th Amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected their suit.

Advocate for Students

Scott Bullock, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal-advocacy organization that backed the students' Supreme Court appeal, said the High Court's action would encourage other districts to proceed with community-service mandates.

"The issue is likely to arise in several other school districts,'' he said, "and we will be there to represent students and parents who believe that helping others must remain a voluntary decision.''

In separate action last week, the High Court:

Declined an appeal from the Renton, Wash., school district, where officials argued that the Washington State constitution supports their decision to bar a student religion club from the schools.

In Renton School District v. Garnett (No. 92-1890), the district argued that the state constitution's strong prohibition on entanglement between public schools and religion should take precedence over the federal Equal Access Act, which requires schools receiving federal funds to treat student religious groups the same way as other student clubs.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the federal law pre-empted the state constitutional provisions.

Let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that a teacher's union in Fort Wayne, Ind., could not use the district's in-house mail system to send unstamped mail to members.

The appellate court said the practice would violate a federal law barring most private mail delivery. The case was Fort Wayne Education Association v. Fort Wayne Community Schools (No. 92-2024).

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