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High Court Rejects Condom-Distribution Case

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected a constitutional challenge to a Massachusetts district's policy of making condoms available to students in its junior and senior high schools without notifying parents.

The Falmouth, Mass., district's four-year-old program has been the target of nationwide criticism from religious conservatives, who argue that such policies interfere with parents' rights to raise their children according to their own moral and religious beliefs.

The Falmouth program does not allow parents to exclude their children from condom distribution, nor does it require parental notification when students seek condoms. Under the program, condoms are provided free to junior and senior high school students who request them from the school nurse, who is also supposed to furnish pamphlets about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases to those students.

In addition, students at Falmouth High School can purchase condoms from vending machines in the school restrooms.

A group of parents and students challenged the policy in the state courts, contending that it violated their constitutional rights of family privacy and free exercise of religion and the parents' right to direct their children's upbringing. They sought to force the district to adopt opt-out and parental-notification policies.

The lawsuit was rejected by a state trial court and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The state high court held that because the program was voluntary, it did not burden the students' or parents' constitutional rights.

"Parents have no right to tailor public school programs to meet their individual religious or moral preferences," the state court said last July. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

The students' and parents' appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Curtis v. School Committee of Falmouth (Case No. 95-617) was backed by the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal organization founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. The appeal called the state high court's ruling "flagrantly anti-parent."

"When the government knowingly helps children defy their parents, that government burdens parental rights," ACLJ lawyer Jay A. Sekulow said in his brief.

The high court rejected the appeal on Jan. 8 without comment, and none of the justices indicated having wanted to hear the case.

Reacting to the denial, Mr. Sekulow said, "A condom has more constitutional protection in America today than parents and children."

Broadcast Indecency

In rejecting another appeal last week, the Supreme Court declined to disturb a ruling that upheld a federal law confining "indecent" programming on radio and broadcast television to late-night hours.

The 1992 measure, part of a broad telecommunications law, was designed to shield children from indecent programming, which under the law includes material that may be offensive or sexually suggestive but otherwise has artistic or scientific merit.

Lower federal courts had overturned Congress' earlier efforts to enact a 24-hour ban on broadcast indecency, ruling that broadcasters must be allowed to air such material during late-night hours.

The 1992 law bans indecent material from 6 a.m. to midnight, but it allows some public-television stations to begin broadcasting indecent material at 10 p.m.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the bulk of the law last year but essentially set a 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. ban for all broadcasters.

The Supreme Court declined to review the case, Action for Children's Television v. Federal Communications Commission (No. 95-520), even though the Department of Justice had suggested that the court defer action pending the outcome of a case it will hear next month on indecency in cable-television programming.

Other Action

Also last week, the high court:

  • Heard arguments in U.S. Department of Commerce v. New York City (No. 94-1985), a case that could determine if the Census Bureau will be required to adjust the 1990 census to reflect an undercount of minority-group members. The outcome could affect the allocation of federal aid among school districts.
  • Declined to hear the appeal of a Virginia couple who sought to have the Stafford County school district pay for a sign-language interpreter to aid their son at a private religious school. The case was Goodall v. Stafford County School Board (No. 95-666).

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