Education and the Supreme Court: The 1999-2000 Term

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The U.S. Supreme Court issued two major decisions this term involving schools and the separation of church and state, ruling against student-led prayers at high school football games while upholding some forms of government aid to religious schools.

Other rulings with implications for educators and public schools concerned parents' rights to direct the upbringing of their children, employment discrimination, labor standards, and voting rights, among other issues.

In addition, in a possible signal of the justices' interest in taking up the issue of tuition vouchers for students in religious schools, a majority of the court issued an unusual order last November in a case from Ohio concerning the voucher program in Cleveland. The court issued a stay of a preliminary injunction by a U.S. district judge in Cleveland who had barred new participants from using the publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools, including religious schools.

The Supreme Court's stay was only temporary, but it sent the message that the program should be allowed to operate while the courts consider its constitutionality. That question is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, and the case conceivably could reach the Supreme Court during its next term.

Here are capsule summaries of the education- related cases decided by the justices in their 1999-2000 term (clicking on the case titles will take you to FindLaw where you can view the full text of the decisions):

Student-Led Prayers at Football Games

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (No. 99-62): In a 6-3 ruling, the court said that student-led prayers at football games violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against a government establishment of religion. The majority said the Texas school district's authorization of a student vote on whether to have an invocation before games and the election of a student speaker amounted to government sponsorship of prayer. The ruling potentially could apply to student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies and other school events.

Federal Aid to Religious Schools
Mitchell v. Helms (No. 98-1648): The court voted 6-3 to uphold a federal program that provides aid to public and private schools, including religious schools, in the form of computers and library books. No opinion of the court commanded a majority, but six justices were in agreement in overruling two Supreme Court precedents from the 1970s that barred the government provision of maps, charts, overhead projectors, and other instructional materials to religious schools.

Boy Scouts' Prohibition Against Homosexuals
Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (No. 99-699): In a 5-4 ruling, the court held that the Boy Scouts have a First Amendment right to exclude homosexuals because their participation would interfere with the organization's "expressive message." The majority said that the court did not approve or disapprove of the Boy Scouts' view of homosexuality, but that the state of New Jersey could not force the organization "to accept members where such acceptance would derogate from the organization's expressive message."

Directing Children's Upbringing
Troxel v. Granville (No. 99-138): In a case involving a Washington state law that gave grandparents and others the right to petition for visitation with minors, the court strongly reaffirmed the constitutional right of parents to make decisions about the upbringing of their children. The court ruled 6-3 against the visitation law, but as many as seven justices reaffirmed parents' rights in three separate opinions.

State Immunity From Lawsuits

Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (No. 98-791): The court ruled 5-4 that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it amended the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to cover the states and their political subdivisions, such as cities and school districts. Under the federal statute, workers who are 40 or older may sue their employers in federal court if they believe they have suffered discrimination based on age. The ruling was the latest victory for the states in a wave of cases in recent years challenging the authority of Congress to abrogate the states' immunity from lawsuits under the 11th Amendment.

Evidence Standard
Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc. (No. 99-536): The court ruled unanimously that a worker suing for discrimination under the federal age-discrimination law does not need additional, independent evidence of bias when the employer's stated reason for an adverse job action is shown to be false. Many lower courts had required further evidence of actual discrimination even when plaintiffs had proved their employers' explanations for adverse job actions to be pretexts. The Supreme Court rejected that standard.

Sexually Explicit Programming

U.S. v. Playboy Entertainment Group Inc. (No. 98-1682): In a 5-4 ruling, the court struck down part of a federal law that required cable television operators to fully block sexually explicit channels or else transmit them only when children were not likely to be viewing. The majority said the law's requirements were a content-based restriction that failed to withstand the strict scrutiny required for such measures under the First Amendment.

Mandatory Student-Activity Fees

Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (No. 98-1189): The court ruled unanimously that universities may collect mandatory activities fees that provide money to a broad range of student groups, as long as the money is distributed on a viewpoint-neutral basis.

Authority of Food and Drug Administration

Food and Drug Administration v. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. (No. 98-1152): The court ruled 5-4 that the federal Food and Drug Administration lacks the authority to regulate tobacco as a drug. The ruling dealt a blow to the agency's efforts aimed at curbing youth smoking.

Preclearance of Voting Changes

Reno v. Bossier Parish School Board (No. 98-405): The court ruled 5-4 that the federal government may not withhold approval of voting changes for state and local elections, even for changes adopted with a discriminatory purpose, unless they would leave minorities in a worse electoral position than before. The case involved a redistricting plan adopted by the Bossier Parish, La., school board in 1992.

Public Employers' Use of Compensatory Time

Christensen v. Harris County (No. 98-1167): In a 6-3 ruling, the court held that public employers may require workers to use their compensatory time instead of stockpiling it for eventual payment in cash. The ruling affects wage-earners employed by school districts, such as cafeteria workers and janitors, but not salaried employees, such as teachers.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 39

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Education and the Supreme Court: The 1999-2000 Term
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