Law Update

September 21, 2004 4 min read
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A federal appeals court has rejected a claim by a New Hampshire couple that the main federal law governing the education of children with disabilities unconstitutionally discriminates against them and their son because he attends a Roman Catholic elementary school.

The parents argued in a lawsuit against the Manchester, N.H., school district that they should not have to violate their religious belief in Catholic schooling in order to receive the full due- process rights afforded to public school parents under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Identified in court papers as Gary S. and Sylvie S., the parents were denied an administrative hearing in response to their dissatisfaction with the speech-language services their son received at a local public school from 1999 through 2001, court papers show.

In a 2003 summary judgment in favor of the 17,400-student district, a U.S. District Court judge rejected the parents’ claims that the IDEA unconstitutionally requires them to give up their right to enroll their child in private school in order to receive protections comparable to those given public school students. The judge also rejected the parent’s arguments that such disparate treatment violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection of the laws, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that places limits on government restrictions of religious liberty.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, unanimously held in a July 1 decision that the district court was right.

“Persons opting to attend private schools, religious or otherwise, must accept the disadvantages as well as any benefits offered by those schools,” the court’s opinion said.

The appeals panel saw the case as essentially challenging “the traditional pattern that has so far prevailed of financing public education via the public schools.” Given that tradition, the opinion said, “it would be unreasonable and inconsistent to premise a free-exercise violation upon Congress’ mere failure to provide to disabled children attending private religious schools the identical financial and other benefits it confers upon those attending public schools.”

Spreading the News

A Maryland school district was most likely wrong to refuse the request by an evangelical Christian organization to distribute fliers inviting elementary school children to Bible-club meetings after school, a federal appeals court has held.

The Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland sued the Montgomery County public schools after the district objected to including fliers advertising the group’s Good News Club in the packet of papers that teachers regularly tell youngsters to take home.

A U.S. District Court judge denied the evangelical group’s request to require the district to have students bring home the fliers as the case continued. The fellowship, a chapter of a national organization that sponsors hundreds of similar clubs around the country, appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

A panel of the court ruled 2-1 on June 30 that the district was unlikely to win, so it reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the case back for further proceedings.

The majority rejected the argument by the 139,000-student district that distributing the fliers would violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of government-established religion. Noting that the school system distributes to students fliers from other religious groups, the majority held that the district had engaged in unconstitutional “viewpoint discrimination” by refusing the Good News Club fliers, but would not violate the establishment clause by letting them be sent home.

The court said the case was controlled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, in which the justices ruled that a New York state district improperly engaged in such discrimination when it refused to let a local Good News Club meet in district facilities after school.

The dissenting judge argued that having children take the fliers home violated the First Amendment by effectively requiring them to participate in a religious act.

A lawyer for the district said that it has requested that the full 4th Circuit appeals court reconsider the case.

Bible Classes Dismissed

A federal appeals court has upheld an order requiring a Tennessee district to stop conducting Bible classes for elementary school students during the school day.

Although the classes in Rhea County, Tenn., were part of the district’s character-development curriculum, they were taught by students from an evangelical Christian college in a manner designed to inspire Christian faith, according to the unanimous June 7 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati. The district had been “woefully derelict” in its oversight of the classes, the court held.

The court noted that the county was the site of the famous 1925 “Monkey trial” of science teacher John T. Scopes, and that the Bible classes were taught by students from Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., named for Scopes-trial lawyer William Jennings Bryan.

The suit was brought against the 4,000-student district by parents who used the pseudonyms of John Doe and Mary Roe, as well as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis.

—Caroline Hendrie

A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Law Update


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