Education and the Supreme Court: The 2003-04 Term

July 14, 2004 4 min read
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Among the highest-profile appeals considered by the U.S. Supreme Court this year was an education case. The dispute over the Pledge of Allegiance—although it ended up being decided on procedural grounds—raised thorny church-state issues and produced dramatic courtroom exchanges that resonated in public schools and on newspaper editorial pages. Other cases being watched by educators involved religious school scholarships and tax credits, employee rights, children’s exposure to online pornography, and court-ordered consent decrees.

Here are summaries of cases of particular interest to educators that the justices decided in their 2003-04 term:

Pledge of Allegiance

‘Under God’ challenged in church-state dispute

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (Case No. 02- 1624)

The high court unanimously reversed a lower-court decision in favor of a California father who contended that the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag—which for the past 50 years has included the words “under God"— should not be recited in public schools. Five of the eight justices who participated in the case agreed to throw it out on procedural grounds, finding that plaintiff Michael A. Newdow did not have legal standing because of issues relating to a child-custody dispute. Three other justices said that the case should have been decided on its merits, and that the pledge did not amount to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, as the lower court had found.

Aid for Divinity Majors

College scholarship case tied to voucher debate

Locke v. Davey (No. 02-1315)

Disappointing advocates of publicly financed tuition aid for religious schools, the court ruled 7-2 that Washington state was not required by the U.S. Constitution’s clause on free exercise of religion to include students training for the ministry in a college-scholarship program. Stressing that its ruling was limited to the training of clergy, the court did not resolve the question of whether voucher programs for elementary and secondary education can exclude students who attend religious schools. Voucher supporters had hoped that a ruling against the state would shore up their argument that any program that provides families funding to attend private schools must include religious ones.

Tax Credits for Tuition Aid

Suit focuses on aid for religious schooling

Hibbs v. Winn (No. 02-1809)

A sharply split court allowed a constitutional challenge to Arizona’s program of tax credits for donations toward private school scholarships to go forward. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that the federal courts are not barred from considering such cases by a federal law aimed at keeping most disputes involving state taxes in state courts. The decision cleared the way for a lawsuit challenging the state’s program on the grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government-established religion because many of the scholarships financed through the tax credit are used at religious schools.

Age Discrimination

Cuts in retirement benefits at issue

General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. v. Cline (No. 02-1080)

In a 6-3 ruling, the court held that the federal law prohibiting age discrimination in the workplace was not meant to protect relatively younger employees from being treated less favorably than older workers. The National Education Association had filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to take that view, out of concern that early-retirement plans offered by school districts could be jeopardized otherwise. The lawsuit involved a labor contract that reduced retirement benefits for workers who were under 50 at the time; the suit was brought by workers who were over 40, and thus were covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Online Pornography

Law aimed at protecting children remains on hold

Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union (No. 03-218)

The court kept in place an injunction against the federal Child Online Protection Act and sent the free-speech case back for a trial in a U.S. District Court. The 5-4 decision said the government had not proved that the 1998 law offers the least restrictive means of shielding minors from Internet pornography, and it suggested that computer filtering technology may well be more effective without infringing First Amendment free- speech rights. COPA, Congress’ second major attempt at a measure designed to protect children from sexually explicit material online, would impose criminal penalties on commercial Web site operators who failed to take steps to shield minors from sites featuring such material.

States’ Rights

Enforcement of consent decrees affirmed

Frew v. Hawkins (No. 02-628)

The court unanimously held that federal judges can enforce consent decrees that obligate state officials to take actions that go beyond the specific requirements of the federal law with which a decree is aimed at ensuring compliance. At issue was a decree entered into by Texas officials in response to a class action by low-income mothers eligible for the federal Medicaid program. The suit centered on a screening program for young children that participating states are required to offer.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Education and the Supreme Court: The 2003-04 Term


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