Supreme Court Declines Appeals on Cuba Book, Religious Speech at Graduation

By Mark Walsh — November 16, 2009 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear appeals stemming from the removal of a children’s book about Cuba from school library shelves and a high school co-valedictorian’s efforts to deliver a religious message at her graduation ceremony.

The book controversy involved ¡Vamos a Cuba!, or A Visit to Cuba. In 2006, a father in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., school district objected to the presence of the book in his daughter’s elementary school because of inaccuracies and because the book’s descriptions about daily life, such as that “people in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do,” ignored the realities of the Communist regime under leader Fidel Castro.

The Miami-Dade school board’s 6-3 decision to remove the book was struck down by a federal district court, which said the majority on the board was motivated to remove the book “because of their disagreement with the content-neutral views” expressed in the book.

But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled 2-1 in February that the school board did not violate the First Amendment when it removed the Cuba book from the shelves of school libraries.

The 11th Circuit court said “overwrought rhetoric about book banning has no place here.”

The appeal to the Supreme Court in American Civil Liberties Union of Florida v. Miami-Dade County School Board (No. 08-1564) raised questions about whether the appeals court failed to show proper deference to the district court’s factual findings.

The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal.

In the religion case, student Brittany McComb sought to use her short valedictory message to discuss how her Christian faith helped her succeed at Foothill High School, in the Clark County, Nev., school district.

According to court documents, McComb says she followed school guidelines about reflecting on experience and saying heartfelt things. Her draft speech detailing her Christian outlook was returned by an assistant principal with large passages crossed out, with remarks such as “proselytizing” and “identifies a particular religion.” At graduation, when the student began to deliver her speech anyway, officials turned off her microphone.

A federal district court allowed the student’s First Amendment lawsuit to proceed, but a March ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld the school district’s actions.

McComb’s appeal to the Supreme Court, backed by the Rutherford Institute, argued that there was widespread confusion in the federal courts over how to treat religious messages by student speakers chosen under neutral criteria, such as valedictorians at graduation ceremonies.

The court declined without comment to hear the appeal in McComb v. Crehan (No. 08-1566). Meanwhile, the justices took no action today on an another appeal stemming from another religion-at-graduation case, in Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District (No. 09-257) and it has other appeals pending involving religious speech in public schools.

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