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Court Declines To Hear Hawaii School's Religious-Hiring Case

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand a lower-court ruling that may force the Kamehameha Schools of Hawaii to abandon their policy of hiring only Protestants as teachers.

Analysts said the action could lead to limitations on the employment policies of other religiously oriented schools that are not owned or controlled by a church.

The High Court on Nov. 8 declined without comment to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in May that the Hawaii schools did not qualify for a religious exemption under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on religion and other factors.

The federal law provides exceptions for churches and religious schools to hire certain employees, such as teachers, based on religion. The Ninth Circuit Court held, however, that the Kamehameha Schools were not "primarily religious'' but were "an essentially secular institution operating within an historical tradition that includes Protestantism.''

'Religious Flavor' Imperiled

The schools were established in the late 1800's by the will of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a member of the former Hawaiian royal family. With a $6 billion endowment, the schools are the richest precollegiate institution in the nation. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)

In her will, Mrs. Bishop dictated that "the teachers of said schools shall forever be persons of the Protestant religion.''

The restriction was eventually challenged, however, by a non-Protestant applicant for a teaching job, who complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission sued the schools, losing in federal district court but winning the ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court.

The appeals-court panel noted that no church or religious organization controls the schools, and that they teach from a generally secular perspective, with only a general religious-studies course required for students.

The schools appealed to the Supreme Court in Kamehameha Schools v. E.E.O.C. (Case No. 93-171), arguing that the Ninth Circuit Court too narrowly limited the religious exemptions available under Title VII of the civil-rights law.

The schools were joined by a number of churches, religious-freedom groups, and religious colleges, which argued that the Ninth Circuit Court's interpretation could limit hiring practices at any religious school or college not owned by a church.

"Congress surely did not intend to stifle the ability of thousands of independent, self-supporting religious schools and colleges to undertake their educational mission with a distinctively religious flavor,'' according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the University of Notre Dame, Valparaiso University, the Christian Legal Society, and other organizations.

Lawyers for Kamehameha indicated last week that the schools may take steps to increase their religious character rather than drop the Protestants-only rule.

Sexual-Harassment Case

Separately last week, the High Court issued a ruling that will make it easier for women to win sexual-discrimination cases against their employers.

Ruling unanimously in Harris v. Forklift Systems Inc. (No. 92-1168), the Court rejected a standard that some lower courts had set requiring women to prove psychological injury to win a suit alleging sexual harassment in the workplace. Schools and other employers have been watching the case for guidance about what workplace conduct crosses the line to become sexual harassment.

The opinion by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said sexual harassment at work can violate Title VII "before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown.''

The Court incrementally expanded its definition of a "hostile work environment,'' saying judges should look at the frequency and severity of discriminatory conduct, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it "unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.''

The Court reversed and remanded a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Also last week, the Court:

  • Declined to hear the appeal of a Louisiana youth ordered by a juvenile court to receive home instruction after he was accused of verbally abusing teachers and other students and physically attacking some students.

Lawyers for the boy sought to return him to school because the home instruction was inadequate and socially isolating. The case was B.C. Jr. v. Louisiana (No. 92-1862).

  • Rejected an appeal by the father of a Texas girl with an emotional disorder over his standing to sue to request a residential placement for her at a psychiatric hospital. The case was Susan R.M. v. Northeast Independent School District (No. 93-434).


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