Roundup: High Court Acts on Range of Cases of Interest to Educators

By Mark Walsh — June 26, 2017 5 min read
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Monday was an extremely busy day on the last formal day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term as the justices issued decisions in argued cases, some per curiam decisions in non-argued cases, some orders granting new cases, and orders denying cases. There are cases of interest to educators in each of those categories.

The biggest decision in an argued case, of course, was Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer (Case No. 15-577), in which the court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri violated the free-exercise-of-religion rights of a church when the church was excluded from a program to refurbish its preschool playground. (There were school choice issues at play in that case, too.) Evie Blad and I report on at some length here.

But the court did much more. Here are some actions on cases that may have implications in education:

President’s Travel Ban

President Donald Trump’s executive order that temporarily bars U.S. entry to people from six predominantly Muslim countries has been of interest particularly in higher education, with the challenges to the so-called travel ban stressing that scholars and students from those countries would be affected.

On Monday, the Supreme Court said it would consider the merits of the issue in October. In the meantime, the court issued an unsigned opinion that partially lifted lower-court injunctions that have been blocking the program. But it declined to stay the injunctions with regard to the litigants in the cases or “foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Neil M. Gorsuch dissented to the degree that they would have lifted the injunctions altogether against the executive order.

The cases are Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project (No. 16-1436) and Trump v. Hawaii (No. 16-1540).

Birth Certificates for Children of Same-Sex Couples

The court issued an unsigned, though not unanimous, decision that effectively orders Arkansas authorities to set aside state laws that block married same-sex couples from having the spouse of a birth mother from being listed as the second parent on a birth certificate.

Under Arkansas law, when a married woman gives birth, her husband must be listed as the second parent on the child’s birth certificate, including when the child was conceived by artificial insemination. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected claims by two female same-sex married couples that this rule was inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that recognized a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

The couples in Pavan v. Smith (No. 16-992) argued that the birth certificate rights were important for parental decisionmaking in medical and educational contexts.

“For example, some Arkansas public schools allow only those parents named on the child’s birth certificate to receive educational information absent a court order,” the couples’ appeal said.

The Supreme Court majority noted that the Arkansas high court had ruled that the state’s birth certificate law centers on the relationship of the biological mother and biological father of a child, not on the marital relationship of husband and wife.

But as a result of the Arkansas law as the state high court interpreted it, “same-sex parents in Arkansas lack the same right as opposite-sex parents to be listed on a child’s birth certificate, a document often used for important transactions like making medical decisions for a child or enrolling a child in school,” the U.S. Supreme Court majority said. “Obergefell proscribes such disparate treatment.”

Gorsuch filed a dissent joined by Thomas and Alito, arguing that the case wasn’t suitable for the “strong medicine” of summary reversal because Arkansas has rational reasons for a biology-based birth registration system, which include ensuring that the government can identify public health trends and help people determine their biological lineage, citizenship, and susceptibility to genetic disorders.

Wedding Cakes and Free Expression Rights

After holding on to the appeal for a long time, the high court agreed to hear the case of a Colorado “cake artist” who declined to design and create a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple because he believes that would conflict with his religious beliefs.

A Colorado appellate court upheld the state Civil Rights Commission’s view that Jack Phillips was engaged in conduct that violated the state’s civil rights laws. In his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Phillips argues that his refusal to create cakes celebrating same-sex marriage is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses.

So what does this case have to do with education? Basically, anytime the Supreme Court veers into First Amendment law regarding religious expression, there are potential implications for public schools.

Both sides in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (No. 16-111) cite for support a 2005 decision by a federal appeals court that upheld a school district’s dress code against a parent and student’s First Amendment challenge.

In Blau v. Fort Thomas Public School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held that the parent and student “had not met their burden of showing that the First Amendment protects” a middle-schooler’s desire to “wear clothing that she likes.”

The two sides in the cake case say the case supports their divergent views about whether custom wedding cakes should be considered pure expression.

The justices will hear arguments sometime in the fall. (No specific “save the date” just yet.)

A Public School Teacher’s Religious Sticky Notes

The justices declined to take up an appeal filed by a New York state teacher who was ordered to remove religious items from her public school classroom.

Joelle Silver, a high school science teacher in the Cheektowaga Central School District, received a “counseling letter” from her superiors ordering her to remove small Christian inspirational posters she had put up around her classroom, as well as sticky notes on her desk with Bible quotes.

Silver sued, arguing that the district was interfering with her First Amendment free speech rights. She lost in both a federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, which held that the school district could direct its teachers “to refrain from expression of religious viewpoints in the classroom and like settings.”

Silver appealed to the Supreme Court, but the justices declined without comment to hear the appeal in Silver v. Cheektowaga Central School District (No. 16-988).

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