Court Revives Challenge to District’s Use of Christian School for Alternative Education

By Mark Walsh — November 24, 2008 1 min read
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A federal appeals court today revived part of a lawsuit that challenges a Tennessee school district’s decision to contract out its alternative education program to a private Christian school.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, voted 2-1 to revive the suit challenging the Jefferson County, Tenn., school board’s decision to use the religious school as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The majority in Smith v. Jefferson County School Board said there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the day program used by the public alternative students at the private Kingswood School was infused with the same Christian focus as Kingswood’s private residential program. The evidence suggested the two programs both had a religious focus, but the court sent the case back to a trial court to decide. The majority said this:

Although the stated secular purpose of the Board—affording an education to alternative school students in the public-school system by sending them to the private Kingswood School in order to help resolve a budget crisis—arguably predominates over any inclination of the Board to advance religion, if the day program was infused with the same focus on Christianity as the residential program, a reasonable person could conclude that the Board was endorsing religion by delegating all of its duties to Kingswood.

The judge who dissented on the establishment clause issue said the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring such a claim.

The court unanimously upheld summary judgment for the school district on several other claims brought by the three teachers who lost their jobs when the Jefferson County district shut down its public alternative school program.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.