Education

Supreme Court Agrees To Review Equal-Access Suit

By Tom Mirga — August 02, 1989 4 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a federal law that prohibits high schools from discriminating against student religious groups violates the First Amendment’s ban on state establishment of religion.

In addition, the Court announced during the closing days of its 1988-89 term that it will weigh state restrictions on the right of teenagers to have abortions, and will hear a pair of cases that could determine whether states must pay retroactive income-tax refunds to federal retirees.

The church-state case accepted for review, Board of Education of the Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (Case No. 1597), marks the second time the Court has accepted a case questioning whether high schools must accommodate students who wish to hold prayer meetings on school property. In 1985, it heard arguments in a case brought by a Pennsylvania student group, but later dismissed the suit on procedural grounds.

Since that time, federal district and appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings on the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act, which prohibits schools that allow noncurriculum-related student clubs to use school facilities from discriminating against such groups on the basis of their religious, political, or philosophical leanings.

Principal’s Decision

The Mergens case began in 1985, when a Nebraska high-school principal, citing school-board policy and First Amendment concerns, denied a student’s request to allow a “Christian Bible club” to meet on school grounds. After the principal’s decision was upheld by the district’s superintendent and school board, the student and several others filed suit, claiming a violation of their rights under the federal law.

A federal district judge upheld the school district’s action, holding that it did not have to accommodate the Bible club because it had not created a “limited open forum” for all other noncurriculum-related groups.

That decision, however, was reversed last February by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

The appeals panel held that the lower court’s interpretation of the term “noncurriculum related” was so narrow as to “make the Equal Access Act meaningless.”

“A public secondary school cannot simply declare that it maintains a closed forum and then discriminate against a particular student group on the basis of the content of the speech of that group,” the court said.

‘Conflicting Demands’

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, the district notes that the Congress passed the Equal Access Act in spite of lower federal court rulings that the provision of meeting space to student religious groups violates the First Amendment.

As a result, it continued, districts “are now caught between the conflicting commands of the federal judicial and legislative branches.”

“Confusion over the constitutionality of student religious clubs has spawned much litigation, endless public controversy, bred disrespect for political and legal institutions which interpret the Constitution in diametrically opposite ways, and4has diverted school officials’ attention from more pressing educational issues,” the district said.

Other Action

In other action, the Court:

Agreed to rule on the constitutionality of state laws that require physicians to notify at least one of the parents of a minor seeking an abortion before performing the procedure.

The Ohio and Minnesota laws before the Court also contain provisions that allow state judges to “bypass” the parental-notification requirements if they feel such action is in the best interest of the girl.

A federal appeals court upheld the Minnesota statute, but another8struck down the Ohio measure.

The cases are Hodgson v. Minnesota (No. 88-1125) and Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health (No. 88-805).

Accepted for argument a pair of cases that may determine whether states must give income-tax refunds to federal pensioners.

Last March, the Court struck down a Michigan law that exempted state and local pensioners from paying state income tax on their retirement benefits, while requiring federal pensioners to pay the tax. Federal retirees in Missouri, Virginia, and other states have filed suits and initiated lobbying campaigns to pressure their states to provide them with retroactive refunds.

A decision supporting the payment of such refunds could drain billions of dollars from the states’ treasuries.

The cases accepted by the Court, McKesson Corporation v. Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (No. 88-192) and American Trucking Association v. Smith (No. 88-325), involve demands for refunds for the payment of state beverage and highway taxes that were ruled unconstitutional by the Court.

Ruled that, in order to collect damages under a federal civil-rights law, a white former football coach in Dallas who claims he was fired because of his race must prove that it was the district’s “policy or custom” to support racially motivated dismissals.

The case, Jett v. Dallas Independent School District (No. 87-2084), involves charges by the coach that his school’s black principal relieved him of his coaching duties because of his race. A federal district court awarded the coach damages, but an appeals court reversed the decision.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Agrees To Review Equal-Access Suit

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