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Four Big Education Decisions Expected Soon From the U.S. Supreme Court

By Mark Walsh — June 05, 2020 5 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court has entered the final stretch of a momentous and pandemic-challenged term with about 20 decisions in argued cases yet to come, and four of those involving K-12 schools or of great interest to educators and students.

The next decisions are expected this Monday, June 5, and the end point for the term is a bit up in the air because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the court’s operations. The justices canceled the court’s March and April arguments, but then heard 10 cases over the telephone in May.

The May session was a couple of weeks later than arguments are usually held. The court traditionally seeks to finish its work by the end of June, and it hasn’t spilled over into July for opinion announcements since 1996. But some court observers think that might be a possibility this year. They point out that because of the pandemic, the justices aren’t in a rush to head out of town for vacation or for overseas teaching gigs at law school seminars. On the other hand, the court deferred 10 cases until next term, and the justices may work hard to finish as close to their normal end point as they can.

Here are four cases (or sets of cases) that educators should be looking for on the days the court releases opinions. The opinion releases are online only—no courtroom sessions during the pandemic—and for now are scheduled at 10 a.m. each Monday for the rest of June, with the possibility of additional opinion days to be scheduled.

Private School Tax Credits

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (Case No. 18-1195), the court is considering a $150 state tax credit for contributions to funds that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools, including religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court invalidated the tax-credit program based on a state constitutional provision that bars any state aid to churches or religiously affiliated schools.

Parents who are receiving scholarships from the program contend the state constitutional provision violates their right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The parents appeared to garner support from the court’s conservative justices at oral arguments in January.

Employment Law Enforcement in Private Religious Schools

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267) and St. James School v. Biel (No. 19-348), the justices are weighing where to draw the line between employees of religious schools who will remain protected by civil rights law and those who will not because they are considered ministers of the faith. The cases concern two teachers who taught lay subjects at two Roman Catholic elementary schools, but also had responsibilities to lead daily religious lessons or participate in prayer services.

The schools and their supporters argue that the teachers’ duties mean they fall under the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination law. Advocates for the teachers say that expanding the exception to any religious school employee who performs a religious function, however small, would strip hundreds of thousands of parochial school teachers of employment-law protection.

The justices heard these consolidated cases in the historic May session of telephone arguments, so a decision is more likely to come late in the term.

Title VII and LGBT Employees

The court heard arguments back in October, on the second day of term, in three cases that asks whether the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers gay, lesbian, and transgender employees based on such status.

The cases are Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga. (No. 17-1618) and Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda (No. 17-1623), which involve gay employees; and R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 18-107), which involves a transgender employee.

The cases are important to the education community because school districts and colleges are large employers, but also because the decisions may affect cases involving the right of transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms or participate in competitive sports in ways that align with their gender identity.

Transgender issues in schools came up in the Supreme Court argument in the Harris Funeral Homes case, while lower court judges have acknowledged the high court’s decision in the employment context may be influential for interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

In Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California (Case No. 18-587) and several consolidated cases, the justices are examining the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to unwind deportation relief for some 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

The University of California system and the American Federation of Teachers are among the parties that challenged the Trump administration effort to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program launched by President Barack Obama in 2012.

Meanwhile, other education groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the many students and working teachers who have DACA protection. The challengers say the administration made an arbitrary and capricious decision to unwind DACA based on a flawed premise that the program was unlawful.

The administration argues that the 2012 DACA program violates federal immigration law in the same way that two later Obama programs did—an expanded DACA and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, known as DAPA. Those later programs were struck down by lower federal courts, whose rulings were left in place by a 4-4 deadlock in the Supreme Court in 2016.

A decision in favor of challengers to the rescission of DACA would keep the program alive, at least temporarily. A ruling for the administration would mean DACA would continue to unwind and recipients will no longer hold a status that permits them to legally attend school, work, or obtain driver’s licenses and they could face deportation.

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