Friday, June 12, 2015

6th Circuit: County's Use of Religiously Sponsored School For Alternative Program Did Not Violate Establishment Clause

In Smith v. Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners, (6th Cir., June 11, 2015), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, reversing the trial court, held that a Tennessee school board did not violate the Establishment Clause when, in the context of a budgetary crisis, it contracted with Kingswood, a private Christian school, to provide a state-mandated alternative program.  District students who had been suspended or expelled from their regular middle- or high-school were enrolled in Kingswood's "day" (as opposed to its more religious "residential") program. In a suit brought by two teachers who lost their jobs when the prior the board-run alternative school closed, the court said in part:
Here, a reasonable observer would not interpret the School Board’s relationship with Kingswood as a governmental endorsement of religion. Parents and students, for example, encountered only de minimis religious references in Kingswood’s day program. The evidence indicates that students in the day program were not exposed to any religious instruction, prayer, or any mentions of religion at all. Their school building was devoid of any religious imagery. Their assemblies in the chapel were as close as the day students came to religious exposure, and yet those assemblies were completely secular activities.
Perhaps the most overt religious references were the Biblical quotes on the report cards, family-feedback forms and—for those who sought them out—the annual report and school improvement plan.   But a reasonable observer would view all of these in the specific context of the arrangement that Kingswood had with Jefferson County. A budgetary crisis forced the Board to close its alternative school and, needing to accommodate the alternative-school students on short notice, the Board selected a high-performing, state-certified alternative school...
An ACLJ press release discusses the decision.

UPDATE: In the case, Judge Batchelder filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the result, but saying: "I cannot agree with the lead opinion’s dismissing as irrelevant last year’s Supreme Court opinion in Town of Greece." She said that while lower courts are required to follow Supreme Court decisions invoking the "endorsement" test until the Court explicitly overrules them, the Supreme Court appears to have rejected that test in favor of the historical "coercion" test.