High Court Rejects Two Appeals on Religion in Schools

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The U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up its 1997-98 term by turning away appeals in two cases involving religion in the public schools.

The denials were among a flurry of last-minute actions that included the court's biggest school decision of the term, its 5-4 ruling in favor of a Texas district in a teacher-student sexual-harassment case.

An appeal from a former Utah high school student who argued that her choir teacher used his classes to promote the Mormon religion was turned down June 26.

Earlier that week, the court rejected a request from Gov. Fob James Jr. of Alabama to intervene in a long-running dispute over school prayer and other religious practices in the DeKalb County, Ala., public schools.

Using a rare and usually unsuccessful legal procedure, Gov. James had filed a 30-page brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn a federal district judge's rulings that limited past religious practices in DeKalb County and struck down a state law authorizing "student led" prayers in public schools.

The governor, who won renomination in a Republican primary runoff election last week, argued that the justices have exceeded their constitutional authority in recent decades with church-state rulings that have usurped power from the states and the people.

"Only the people of the United States, not the justices of this court, have constitutional authority to decide the fundamental principles of our society," said the governor's brief in In Re: Fob James Jr. (Case No. 97-1780).

The state's formal appeal of U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent's rulings striking down the state prayer law and religious practices in DeKalb County is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, which is representing a DeKalb County assistant principal who challenged longstanding religious practices in the district such as prayers before football games, declined to respond to the governor's high court papers.

The justices rejected the governor's request for action on June 22 without any comment.

Choir Case

The court also rejected without comment the appeal of Rachel Bauchman, who was a sophomore at West High School in Salt Lake City in 1995 when she objected to her choir teacher's alleged injection of religion into class activities and choir performances.

Ms. Bauchman, who is Jewish, alleged that Richard Torgerson promoted the singing of Christian songs and taking part in Mormon prayers and sacrament meetings. Her lawsuit sought damages and an end to the alleged unconstitutional practices.

A federal district judge ruled against Ms. Bauchman, as did a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The panel said in a 2-1 decision that the Supreme Court's religion cases were "muddled" and "uncertain." It said that the evidence did not show that the choir teacher had the intent of selecting songs and performance venues that would serve a religious purpose.

Free-Trade Zones

In other action in the final week of its term, the high court:

  • Rejected an appeal from three Texas school districts that argued that a federal law exempting property in foreign-trade zones from state and local property taxes is unconstitutional.

The Deer Park, Galena Park, and Sheldon districts said they lost out on approximately $4 million in 1995 and 1996 tax revenue because of exemptions granted under the federal law to several oil and industrial companies.

The districts argued that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause by authorizing the property-tax exemptions.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, disagreed. The court said that the law was designed to establish uniformity in foreign commerce, and that Congress was well within its commerce-clause power in enacting it.

The court noted that four Texas members of the House and Senate sponsored the federal law, which was designed to promote foreign trade in the state. The high court appeal was Deer Park Independent School District v. Harris County Appraisal District (No. 97-1730).

  • Declined an appeal from the mother of a Texas student who received corporal punishment at school despite a lack of parental permission.

The student received "one lick" with a wooden paddle as discipline for talking in a hallway in 1995 at Wiley Middle School in Waco, Texas, according to court papers.

Lower federal courts rejected a lawsuit filed by the mother, Cheryl Pruitt, arguing that corporal punishment violated the boy's right to due process under law. The rejected appeal was Pruitt v. Waco Independent School District (No. 97-1776).

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 27

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as High Court Rejects Two Appeals on Religion in Schools
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