Teacher's 'Magic Rocks' Cause Problems for Mo. District

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A federal appeals court has upheld a jury verdict in favor of a Missouri teacher whose employment-discrimination lawsuit alleged that she was dismissed because her notes to students discussing "magic rocks" offended the religious sensibilities of the community.

Leslie Cowan said in her suit that the magic-rock letters sparked a wave of concern about supposed New Age teaching methods in the Strafford, Mo., district and that she lost her job teaching 2nd grade as a result.

The 962-student district argued that its nonrenewal of Ms. Cowan's contract in 1993 had nothing to do with the letters, but was due to her teaching deficiencies.

The controversy began in the spring of 1992, when Ms. Cowan gave each of her 2nd graders a rock with a note saying that it was "magic."

"The magic rock you have will always let you know that you can do anything that you set your mind to," the teacher wrote. "To make your rock work, close your eyes, rub it, and say to yourself three times, 'I am a special and terrific person, with talents of my own!'"

Some parents complained about the letter, and two families removed their children from the district and enrolled them in private Christian schools as a direct result.

The school principal told Ms. Cowan to avoid "magical ideas" in her teaching. The principal also issued the teacher job-improvement targets that included improving relationships with parents.

At the beginning of the 1992-93 school year, the school held a seminar conducted by a local pastor that was devoted to New Ageism and the "infiltration" of New Age thinking in the public schools.

Ms. Cowan was dismissed by the school board in March 1993. She filed a federal lawsuit under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The teacher never claimed she held New Age religious beliefs, but she argued that the district illegally dismissed her based on the religious perceptions of the community.

The district's defense was that Ms. Cowan was not retained for the legitimate reason of poor teaching performance.

A jury found for Ms. Cowan on both claims and awarded her $18,000 in damages on the Title VII claim and no damages on the First Amendment claim. The federal district judge rejected the school district's request that the verdict be thrown out. The judge also rejected Ms. Cowan's request to be reinstated to her job, ruling that her relationship with her principal was too badly damaged. Instead, the judge awarded her two years of future pay.

The district appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis. A three-judge panel unanimously affirmed the lower-court judgment.

There was sufficient evidence "for a reasonable jury to conclude that persons involved in the decisionmaking process were motivated by religious concerns regarding the teaching of New Ageism," the appeals panel said in its April 7 decision in Cowan v. Strafford R-VI School District.

The panel concluded that the principal's conduct in response "to the community's apprehensions regarding New Ageism coupled with her generally unsupportive behavior toward Cowan" provided sufficient evidence to support the discrimination claim.

Thomas Mickes, a lawyer for the the school district, said an appeal is being considered.

Can young teenagers legally have sex?

In California, the answer is no. In a ruling that has attracted attention in newspaper headlines and late-night comedy monologues, a state appeals court upheld a California law that makes it a crime for minors to have consensual sex.

The ruling came in the case of a 16-year-old Alameda County boy, identified only as T.A.J., who was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

The boy was charged with a misdemeanor under the California penal code. He was later charged with a potential felony count of forcible rape, but a trial judge ruled that the 1996 sexual liaison was consensual. The boy was placed on probation for the misdemeanor count of unlawful sexual intercourse.

He challenged the constitutionality of the state law, arguing that it cannot apply to him as a perpetrator since he is a member of the protected class defined by the law. He also argued that minors have a right to privacy under the state constitution that includes the right to have sexual intercourse.

In a unanimous ruling April 9, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal held that minors have no state constitutional privacy right that includes the right to have sex.

"While we do not ignore the reality that many California teenagers are sexually active, that fact alone does not establish that minors have a right of privacy to engage in sexual intercourse," Justice Ignazio Ruvolo said in the ruling. "Due to age and immaturity, minors often lack the ability to make fully informed choices that take account of both immediate and long-range consequences."

Thomas A. Nazario, a professor at the University of San Francisco law school and an expert on children's legal rights, said many states have statutory-rape laws similar to California's in which "consensual" sex between minors is illegal.

California's law applies both to boys and girls and considers anyone under 18 a minor, he said. Many states have a lower age of consent, and some statutory-rape laws provide protection only to girls as victims, Mr. Nazario said. --MARK WALSH

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