Special Education

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeals on Religious Murals, Special Education

By Andrew Trotter — October 11, 2005 3 min read
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A First Amendment challenge to a principal’s power to alter religious murals and a complaint by parents in a special education dispute over their child’s reassignment to another school were two appeals out of hundreds of cases that the U.S. Supreme Court turned away at the start of its new term last week.

The high court denied requests to review lower-court decisions in those cases, allowing the rulings to stand as the law in their courts’ jurisdictions.

Denial is the fate of the vast majority of appeals to the Supreme Court. In recent years, the court typically has accepted only about 80 cases per term, out of more than 8,000 petitions filed annually.

Though Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. announced the issuing of last week’s denials of review, he did not participate in the voting on the petitions, which took place last month before he joined the court.

One of the rejected education-related appeals involves First Amendment free-speech issues arising at Boca Raton Community High School in the 177,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., district.

In 2002, the principal there invited a student leadership class to organize a mural project to decorate plywood panels that had been installed around areas of the school that were being renovated.

After some students painted murals with religious references, including to God and Jesus, the principal concluded that the murals were disruptive to the educational process and directed the supervising teacher to ask one of the students, Sharah Harris, to paint over religious elements she had painted on her own murals.

Harris’s mother, Shelda Harris Bannon, sued on her daughter’s behalf, claiming that the school’s requirement that she paint over her murals was censorship that also subjected Harris to public ridicule because of her religious beliefs.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, held that the principal had editorial control over the murals, because they were school-sponsored speech that could be considered part of the curriculum and had the appearance of school endorsement..

The justices declined without comment on Oct. 3 to hear the family’s appeal in Bannon v. School District of Palm Beach County (Case No. 04-1207).

IDEA Appeal

The special education case rejected last week was brought by the parents of a child with a disability who objected to a Louisiana school district’s decision to move the boy’s education program from his neighborhood school to another one without going through the procedure for amending an individualized education program under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The 17,000-student Ascension Parish district argued that a change in location did not constitute a “change in placement” under the federal law, a view upheld by a state review panel, a federal district court, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans. But the parents argued in their appeal that the federal Department of Education’s IDEA regulations favor assignments to students’ neighborhood schools over other facilities.

The parents urged the Supreme Court to resolve what it called a conflict between the Education Department’s view and that taken by the 5th Circuit court. But the justices declined to hear the appeal in Veazey v. Ascension Parish School Board (No. 04-1683)

Another appeal denied by the Supreme Court last week stemmed from a lawsuit by Patrick Barrett, a substitute teacher in the Steubenville, Ohio, school district, claiming that his parental rights were violated when the district’s superintendent, Richard Lucci, allegedly told him he would not receive a permanent teaching position because he had transferred his son from a public high school in the city to a Catholic school.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that, because Mr. Barrett had a constitutional right to direct the education of his child, the superintendent did not have qualified immunity from the teacher’s suit.

The Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the superintendent’s appeal in Steubenville City Schools v. Barrett (No. 04-1409).

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Declines to Hear Appeals On Religious Murals, Special Education

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