Court Declines To Hear Class-Assignment Case

By Mark Walsh — December 06, 1995 2 min read


The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal by a Tennessee woman who argued that an English teacher’s refusal to accept a research paper about the life of Jesus amounted to discrimination against religious speech.

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 protection of student religious expression in public schools.

The high court on Nov. 27 declined to hear the appeal of Settle v. Dickson County School Board (Case No. 95-507).

The case began when Dana Ramsey, Ms. Settle’s English teacher at Dickson County Junior High School, assigned students to write a research paper on any topic they chose. The teacher rejected Ms. Settle’s proposed topic, telling her that a paper on Jesus was “not an appropriate thing to do in a public school,” according to court documents.

Ms. Settle’s father met with the teacher and the school principal to protest, but Ms. 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 Ms. Settle would not benefit from the research process by writing a paper on a topic with which she was already well acquainted.

She 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 Sixth Circuit. The Sixth 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 Sixth Circuit court said.

A Case in Point

Advocates of a religious-liberty amendment to the Constitution have cited the Settle case in testimony before Congress.

Michael W. McConnell, a University of Chicago law professor and an expert in church-state law, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September that Ms. 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,” Mr. McConnell added.

In her Supreme Court appeal, Ms. Settle said that lower courts and school officials were “divided and badly confused” about how to handle such situations.

She argued that the Sixth Circuit court’s ruling runs counter to the guidelines on religious expression in public schools issued in August by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

“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,” one guideline states.

The Clinton administration declined to take a position on whether the high court should accept Ms. Settle’s appeal. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, Assistant Attorney Walter E. Dellinger said the case did not present a clear-cut example of religious discrimination.

“The fact that a paper is on a religious topic does not exempt it from other pedagogical rules,” said Mr. Dellinger, who helped draft the administration’s religious-expression guidelines.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1995 edition of Education Week as Court Declines To Hear Class-Assignment Case