Law & Courts

Education and the Supreme Court: What to Watch for in the New Term

By Mark Walsh — September 29, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The new U.S. Supreme Court term that opens Oct. 5 has fewer cases of interest to educators than the blockbuster 2019-20 term, which included decisions easing state aid to religious schools, eliminating employment protections for parochial school teachers, extending deportation relief for undocumented immigrants, and protecting LGBTQ workers from discrimination.

The new term has just a handful of cases for educators to watch so far, but things could change swiftly. And with the Sept. 18 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a new justice will bring fresh perspectives, whenever she (or he) is confirmed.

“Last term was by far the most consequential term in recent memory,” said Irv Gornstein, the executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. “At first glance, this [new] term will be a reversion to the mean, with far fewer blockbusters and far fewer surprising results.”

Still, there already are cases scheduled for hearing on the intersection between religious freedom rights and anti-discrimination laws and a new attack on the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health law that has long attracted support from the teachers’ unions.

The court could well add other education-related cases. The justices are weighing whether to take up cases that raise issues following up on the court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, which overruled a 1977 precedent that had authorized public-employee unions to collect service fees from those who decline to join the union.

In Janus, the court said collective bargaining in education was a matter of public concern, and nonmembers could not be compelled under the First Amendment to help fund views with which they disagreed. Across the country, union objectors, backed by groups that pressed the Janus case, have been seeking refunds of fees collected over many years before the 2018 shift in the law.

Lower courts have rejected those claims, and there are now at least three pending appeals asking the justices to consider the issue. Those are Janus v. AFCSME (Case No. 19-1104), Mooney v. Illinois Education Association (No. 19-1126), and Danielson v. Inslee (No. 19 -1130).

Meanwhile, the court is also being asked to take up an issue that may be even more of a threat to the strength of public-employee unions. In Reisman v. Associated Faculties of the University of Maine (No. 19-847), the question is whether exclusive representation systems—in which, for example, state laws authorize only one union to represent teachers in a given district—raise the same First Amendment issues as the compelled collective-bargaining fees that the court rejected in Janus.

On the Docket

In addition to those union-related cases that could be granted review, here are some cases already on the docket for educators to watch in the 2020-21 court term:

Religious freedom vs. non-discrimination—In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia (No. 19-123), Catholic Social Services, an agency of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is challenging its exclusion from the city’s foster-care system.

In 2018, the city learned that the Catholic agency was not endorsing same-sex couples to become foster parents. The city argues that the refusal violates contractual provisions barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The social-services agency says it is following Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage, and the city’s exclusion is a matter of religious hostility that violates its First Amendment speech and free-exercise-of-religion rights.

A federal appeals court ruled that the city was applying a neutral and generally applicable policy and thus upheld it under the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. In that case, the high court cast aside a long-prevalent “strict scrutiny” test for evaluating government action that infringed the free exercise of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment.

In granting the Catholic organization’s appeal, the Supreme Court asked the parties to weigh in on whether Smith should be overruled. If the court went that far, the result would have implications for disputes over religious practices involving both public and private schools. And the way the court resolves how to handle the balance between religious rights and non-discrimination policies is potentially important in education, especially after last term’s landmark ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., that federal employment law protects LGBTQ workers.

Paul D. Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general who argues frequently before the court, said at a George-town Law forum that the case raises significant issues, but also provides the justices “some potential off-ramps” because of factual and procedural complications. The case will be argued Nov. 4.

The Affordable Care Act—In California v. Texas (No. 19 -840), the justices will again take up the controversial health law. The latest appeal stems from a lawsuit filed by Texas and 17 other states challenging the constitutionality of the law after Congress in 2017 eliminated the penalty for not complying with the law’s individual mandate.

What does this mean for education? Because the law affects every corner of the health-insurance system, there have been some trickle-down effects on schools. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have joined a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the ACA has eliminated discriminatory health-insurance practices that, in particular, hurt working women and their families.

The case will be argued Nov. 10.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2020 edition of Education Week as Education and the Supreme Court: What to Watch for in the New Term


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Families Sue Rhode Island's Governor to Overturn His School Mask Mandate
The families say mask-wearing threatens to cause serious and long-lasting damage on their children's physical and emotional well-being.
Linda Borg, The Providence Journal
2 min read
Students line up to have their temperature taken as they return for the first time as their school, The Learning Community, reopens to in-person learning after it closed for the pandemic a year ago, in Central Falls, R.I., on March 29, 2021.
Students line up to have their temperature taken as they return for the first time as their school, The Learning Community, reopens to in-person learning after it closed for the pandemic a year ago, in Central Falls, R.I., on March 29, 2021.
David Goldman/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Denies Parents' Suit to Block Florida's Ban on School Mask Mandates
The parents argued that their children, due to health conditions, were at particular risk if any of their peers attend school without masks.
David Goodhue, Miami Herald
3 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Law & Courts Texas Attorney General Sues More School Districts That Require Masks
The Texas attorney general's office anticipates filing more lawsuits against districts flouting the governor’s order. Will Dallas be next?
Talia Richman, The Dallas Morning News
4 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2020.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Law & Courts Can They Do That? Questions Swirl Around COVID-19 School Vaccine Mandates
With at least one large school district adopting a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, here is a look at the legal landscape for such a requirement.
5 min read
Image of a band-aid being placed on the arm.
iStock/Getty