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Minn. School's Ties to Sect Don't Violate the Law, Court Rules

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A public school opened largely at the request of members of a Protestant religious sect in rural Minnesota does not violate federal or state constitutional prohibitions against government establishment of religion, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Wabasso school district opened the K-6 elementary school in 1993 to serve about 20 students in the southwestern Minnesota town of Vesta. Many residents of the community are members of the Brethren, a sect that avoids the use of most modern technology such as computers and television.

The district denies tailoring its educational program for the Brethren. Technology lessons are available at the school, the district argued, but all of the children there come from Brethren families and their parents have opted not to participate in technology-related activities. State law allows parents to exempt their children from any lessons they find objectionable.

A federal district judge ruled last year that the establishment of the school violated the religion clauses of the federal and state constitutions. But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed that decision on Aug. 21 by a 2-1 vote.

Similarities to Kiryas Joel?

The majority said the district had a valid secular purpose for opening the school, and the judges rejected the argument that the arrangement was similar to one struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case from Kiryas Joel, N.Y. ("One More Time," in This Week's News.)

In that case, the high court said the state had bowed to the wishes of a religious community when it established a school district to educate disabled children in a village of Hasidic Jews. "This case is not Kiryas Joel," the majority opinion in Stark v. Independent School District No. 640 said.

In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Diana E. Murphy said the case was indeed similar to the one from Kiryas Joel. "The school district has entered into a contractual relationship with members of a religious group to tailor a school to their preferences," she said.

Judge Murphy said it was significant that the Brethren signed the lease for the school building and helped pick the teacher.

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