Court Lets Stand Ruling on School Serving Sect

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected a challenge to a Minnesota district's operation of a public school that largely excludes technology at the request of a Protestant religious sect known as the Brethren.

The justices declined without a comment to hear the appeal of a ruling that said the arrangement did not violate the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State organized the lawsuit against the 200-student Wabasso, Minn., district. The group contended that the district established the school at the request of Brethren members in the rural town of Vesta and agreed to exclude computers, televisions, and other modern technological teaching tools because of the sect's religious objections.

The K-6 elementary school enrolls about 20 students, all members of the Brethren, according to court papers.

A federal district judge ruled for Americans United that the school in Vesta violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, voted 2-1 to reverse the decision. The panel majority said the school was a neutral provision of government services.

In its appeal to the high court in Stark v. Independent School District No. 640 (Case No. 97-1381), Americans United argued that the establishment of the school for the Brethren was similar to New York state's creation of school district for a village of Hasidic Jews.

The Supreme Court struck down the New York district in its 1994 ruling in Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet.

"As in Kiryas Joel, the benefits here flow only to a single sect," the appeal from Americans United said. "If allowed to stand, there is a serious risk that the [8th Circuit court's] decision will foster the Balkanization of public schools along religious lines, with curricula conformed to delete material that is religiously objectionable."

The Wabasso district responded that the Vesta school is a public school "in all respects" and is open to any student who wants to attend. The exclusion of technology is consistent with a district policy, and more recently a state law, that requires the accommodation of parental requests "for exemption from aspects of the public school curriculum that violate the consciences of parents and/or their children."

The district said that computers are available at the Vesta school and that they are being used by some students.

Retirement Benefits

In other action last week, the high court rejected an appeal from a Pennsylvania school employee who had unsuccessfully sought credit in the state retirement system for time in which he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal in Worley v. Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement Board (No. 97-1421).

The case involved Daniel T. Worley, who worked with the criminally insane from 1969 to 1971 as an alternative to being drafted into the U.S. military. He later went to work for the Northern York school district in Pennsylvania.

In 1994, Mr. Worley sought to purchase military retirement credit for his two years of alternative service.

The state retirement board and state courts ruled that alternative service did not meet the definition of military service.

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