Student Essay On Jesus Prompts Legal Battle
The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a Tennessee student who argued that her junior high school English teacher unfairly discriminated against her when the teacher refused to accept a research paper she had written about the life of Jesus.
The case of Brittney Settle, who was a 9th grader in Dickson, Tenn., when the dispute arose in 1991, has been widely cited in recent months by religious conservatives as evidence of the need to amend the U.S. Constitution to provide stronger protections for religious expression in public schools. (See box below.)
The dispute began when Dana Ramsey, Settle's English teacher at Dickson County Junior High School, assigned students a research paper on any topic they chose. The teacher, however, rejected Settle's proposed topic, telling her that a paper on Jesus was "not an appropriate thing to do in a public school.''
Settle's father met with the teacher and the school principal to protest, but Ramsey said she would not let the student write about Jesus because "that would be dealing specifically with her personal redeemer.'' The teacher later gave additional reasons why the topic was inappropriate. For example, she said Settle would not benefit from the research process by writing a paper on a topic with which she was already well-acquainted. Settle wrote about Jesus anyway and received a grade of zero.
The family sued but lost in federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The 6th Circuit's ruling last May affirmed the broad discretion of classroom teachers over student assignments. "It is the essence of the teacher's responsibility in the classroom to draw lines and make distinctions--in a word to encourage speech germane to the topic at hand,'' the court said. On Nov. 27, the Supreme Court declined to hear Settle's appeal of the 6th Circuit's ruling.
Advocates of a religious-liberty amendment to the Constitution have cited the Settle case before Congress. Michael McConnell, a University of Chicago law professor and an expert in church-state law, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September that Ramsey's reasons for rejecting a paper on Jesus were "uninformed, bigoted, or selectively applied.''
"When a research paper is otherwise appropriate, as this one was, the fact that it involves religion is not a legitimate basis for exclusion,'' McConnell stated.
In her Supreme Court appeal, Settle argued that lower courts and school officials were "divided and badly confused'' about how to handle such situations. She argued that the 6th Circuit's ruling runs counter to the guidelines on religious expression in public schools issued in August by Secretary of Education Richard Riley. One of those guidelines states: "Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.''
The Clinton administration declined to take a position on whether the high court should accept Settle's appeal. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter Dellinger said the case did not present a clear-cut example of religious discrimination. "The fact that a paper is on a religious topic,'' Dellinger said, "does not exempt it from other pedagogical rules.''
Two members of Congress have introduced competing proposals that would amend the U.S. Constitution to provide greater protection for public school prayer and other forms of religious expression.
In November, Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., unveiled a proposal that would guarantee the right to "student-sponsored prayer'' in public schools. "This does not seek to take us back to an era when teachers led students in a required prayer, but for students who desire to have prayer as a normal part of their school day, it removes the artificial barriers erected years ago by the [U.S. Supreme] Court,'' the Congressman said.
Istook's amendment states: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Nothing in this Constitution shall prohibit acknowledgments of the religious heritage, beliefs, or traditions of the people, or prohibit student-sponsored prayer in public schools. Neither the United States nor any state shall compose any official prayer or compel joining in prayer, or discriminate against religious expression or belief.''
Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., introduced another religious-liberty amendment, but his does not specifically mention student-sponsored prayer. His measure states: "Neither the United States nor any state shall deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression, belief, or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination.''
Hyde's proposal closely resembles language backed in recent months by several conservative constitutional scholars and organizations, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Rutherford Institute. "We are very pleased with the language of Rep. Hyde's amendment,'' said Greg Baylor, assistant director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, an advocacy arm of the Annandale, Va.-based Christian Legal Society. "It just says that government cannot discriminate against religion.''
But Rep. Istook said Hyde's proposal "is inadequate to address the problems the public wants to address.'' He argued that a majority of Americans want to overturn court rulings that have barred prayers at public school graduations and voluntary group prayers by students in other school situations. Hyde's measure "is a civil rights amendment,'' Istook said. "There is nothing in there that addresses school prayer.''
After Republicans took control of Congress in January, Rep. Istook was assigned to draft a religious-liberty amendment by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who himself has wavered on support for amending the Constitution. Rep. Hyde is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which will consider the issue. Istook and a spokesman for Rep. Hyde said the chairman intends to allow the panel to debate both proposals, but Hyde's spokesman also said only one measure would leave the committee.
In a series of congressional hearings last year, advocates of strict church-state separation argued against amending the Constitution. They have since denounced both proposed amendments. "It would be difficult to say either one was worse than the other,'' said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. "They are both destructive of religious liberty.''
Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas at Austin, said the proposed amendments would still leave open to judicial review the question of whether the government was authorizing or engaging in religious expression in a particular case. "If what they want to do is end the litigation, it's not going to do that,'' he said.