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Court Strikes Calif. Rules Limiting Religious Speech

Officials in the California education department violated the First Amendment when they barred employees from discussing their religious beliefs or displaying religious materials near their office cubicles, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit unanimously struck down the regulations limiting religious speech in the state education agency's child-nutrition and food-distribution division.

Monte D. Tucker, a computer analyst at the state agency, challenged the rules, arguing that his religious beliefs commanded him to credit God for his work. In 1988, Mr. Tucker began putting the initials for the phrase "Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ" after his name on materials he worked on.

His superiors instructed him not to use the initials and suspended him for five days when he did not comply. In 1989, the child-nutrition division posted rules that prohibited employees from engaging in religious advocacy in the office. In addition to banning religious discussions, the rules prohibited the display of religious artifacts or tracts outside of workers' offices or cubicles.

Mr. Tucker challenged the rules in a federal lawsuit filed in 1989. A federal district court upheld them in 1991. After lengthy procedural delays, the appeals court last month reversed the district court and ruled for Mr. Tucker.

The state agency violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by targeting religious speech for restrictions, the court said. "Allowing employees of the child-nutrition and food-distribution division to discuss whatever subject they choose to at work, be it religion or football, may incidentally benefit religion (or football), but it would not give the appearance of a state endorsement," said the Oct. 4 opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

Idaho Principal Does Not Qualify for Immunity

In another recent ruling from the 9th Circuit, a separate three-judge panel unanimously held that an Idaho high school principal accused of using excessive force against students in three separate incidents is not entitled to qualified immunity from a civil lawsuit.

The court said in P.B. v. Koch that at the time of the incidents, during the 1990-91 school year, students had a constitutional right to be free from bodily harm caused by school officials.

The case involves allegations that Alfred Koch, the principal of Preston (Idaho) High School, used excessive force against three students. In one incident, the principal squeezed a student's neck after he mistakenly thought the student had referred to him as Hitler. Mr. Koch pleaded guilty to assault and battery in that 1990 incident and was placed on probation for three months.

In the second incident, the principal allegedly punched a student in the chest after the student made noise during a ceremony at a basketball game. In the third, Mr. Koch allegedly slammed a student into some lockers because the student refused to keep his hat off after the principal asked him to remove it.

The students filed a civil rights lawsuit against Mr. Koch, who sought to have it thrown out based on qualified immunity, which is a protection against liability for public officials who can show their actions were reasonable and did not violate established constitutional rights. A federal district court denied the bid for immunity, and Mr. Koch appealed.

"It is clear that a principal who physically assaulted his students in the manner Koch allegedly did has violated their clearly established constitutional rights," said the Sept. 27 opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Betty B. Fletcher.

Court is Dog's Best Friend

The Nevada Supreme Court may well be a dog's best friend.

The court has upheld a preliminary injunction allowing a music teacher in the Clark County schools to bring to her classroom a dog she was training to be a helper for people with disabilities.

The district had barred the dog, saying it could harm students who were afraid of or allergic to dogs.

The teacher, Anne Buchanan, said it was important for dogs in training to be exposed to public situations. She argued that a state law guaranteed the same access to public accommodations for trainers of helping dogs as for the disabled people who rely on the animals. ("Take Note: Does the dog stay--or go?," Sept. 20, 1995.)

In an opinion filled with perhaps every possible dog-related pun or clich‚, the state high court agreed that the law covers classrooms. The court said the district's argument against allowing the dog "barks up the wrong tree."

"We should not discriminate against 'man's best friend,'" the court said. "Justice must be even-pawed!"

--MARK WALSH mwalsh@epe.org

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