Law & Courts

High Court Declines to Hear Case On Teaching of Evolution

By Mark Walsh — January 16, 2002 4 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear the appeal of a Minnesota high school biology teacher who was reassigned because he refused to teach a unit on the theory of evolution in accordance with the district’s curriculum.

Rodney LeVake, a teacher at Faribault High School, did not claim to support creationism or creation science. But when administrators asked in 1998 whether he was skipping over lessons about Darwin’s theory of evolution in his 10th grade biology classes, Mr. LeVake told them he could teach it only if he could also present scientific criticisms of the theory.

“I will ... accompany that treatment of evolution with an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one,” he wrote to his superiors in the 4,090-student Faribault district.

Administrators reassigned Mr. LeVake to teach 9th grade science, which does not cover evolution. He sued the district in state court, alleging violations of his federal constitutional rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. He lost in both a state trial court and a state appeals court.

The appeals court said that high school teachers deserve some academic freedom in the classroom, but said that Mr. LeVake’s “proposed method of teaching evolution is in direct conflict with [the school district’s] curriculum requirements.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear Mr. LeVake’s appeal, so he turned to the federal Supreme Court.

“This court has described in soaring terms the nature and importance of the constitutionally guaranteed right of academic freedom,” said the teacher’s appeal in LeVake v. Independent School District No. 656 (Case No. 01-665). “LeVake was reassigned for wishing to provide his students with scientific criticisms of a scientific theory.”

But in its brief in opposition to the appeal, the school district said: “No court has found that a public school teacher’s First Amendment rights extend to choosing their own curriculum in contravention of school policy or dictates.”

The court declined Mr. LeVake’s appeal without comment Jan. 7.

ADA, False-Claims Cases

In separate action last week, the court:

  • Narrowed the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 by ruling that a person must be substantially limited in activities that are “central to daily life” to be considered to have a disability under the law.

The unanimous ruling Jan. 8 in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams (No. 00-1089) was a defeat for auto worker Ella Williams, who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome and couldn’t perform all tasks required on her assembly line job. She sued under the ADA when Toyota refused to accommodate her with a job that she could perform.

In her opinion for the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said a federal appeals court was wrong to conclude that Ms. Williams had a disability under the law. Justice O’Connor noted that Ms. Williams was substantially limited in performing manual tasks only in the workplace.

“To be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives,” the justice wrote.

She added that household chores, bathing, and brushing one’s teeth are among such activities, and said that they “should have been part of the assessment of whether [Ms. Williams] was substantially limited in performing manual tasks.”

  • Declined to revive a lawsuit filed by two whistle-blowers alleging that the Orleans Parish, La., school district defrauded the federal government of $7.6 million.

William Garibaldi and Carlos Samuel worked as auditors for the 75,000-student district, which covers New Orleans, when in 1995 they uncovered what they believed was an 11-year pattern of fraudulent unemployment-insurance and workers'-compensation claims. They brought their findings to their superiors, but were rebuffed. The district’s chief financial officer and its outside accounting firms denied any improprieties. The two auditors were fired.

They sued the district under the federal False Claims Act, which allows private citizens alleging fraud against the federal government to sue on the government’s behalf and keep part of any amount recovered.

A federal jury ruled in their favor, and a judge set damages at $22 million. Under the federal law, the two auditors would have split $6 million for pursuing the claim.

Last March, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit threw out the case. A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based court ruled unanimously that school districts and other local governments may not be held liable under the False Claims Act. The court said that the triple damages required under the federal law are partly punitive, and that local governments are generally not subject to punitive damages.

“The punishment, in the form of higher taxes or reduced public services, is visited upon the blameless,” the appeals court said. “Neither the taxpayers nor the schoolchildren of Orleans Parish played any role in the conduct giving rise to the school board’s liability.”

The Supreme Court declined without comment Jan. 7 to hear the auditors’ appeal in United States ex rel. Garibaldi v. Orleans Parish School Board (No. 01-510).

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as High Court Declines to Hear Case On Teaching of Evolution

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