High court won't bar religious services in schools

October 10, 1990|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Public schools that allow outside groups to use their buildings apparently will also have to let religious organizations in, even for worship services -- at least until the Supreme Court reacts differently than it did yesterday.

In a brief order, the court chose to leave intact a lower court decision saying that public schools providing an "open forum" in their facilities have a constitutional duty to give equal access to religious groups.

This was the first test case to reach the court on that specific issue. In 1981, the court had ruled that religious groups could not be excluded from generally open facilities at state colleges and universities.

Since then, it has been an unsettled question whether the same would be true for high schools and elementary schools, or whether the youth and comparative lack of maturity of their pupils would make a difference.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, in the ruling that the Supreme Court declined to disturb yesterday, said that high school students, at least, were mature enough not to make a mistake and think that access for religious groups meant that the schools endorsed those groups' faiths or religious missions.

Although the Supreme Court's refusal to review that case contained no explanation and thus did not mean the justices hold the same view constitutionally, their action yesterday does suggest that the court considered the issue unworthy of its time at this point. Thus, the Circuit Court ruling is likely to be a signal tolawyers for public school systems to advise school boards and administrators to let the religious groups use their facilities, too, when other outsiders are given access.

The issue, of course, could return to the Supreme Court at some time in the future.

Yesterday's test case involved a public high school in Warminster, Pa., that had adopted a rule barring religious groups from using all school facilities while allowing other outside groups to use them.

That rule was challenged by the Campus Crusade for Christ, whichwanted to put on a combined magic-and-evangelism show the school auditorium.

There was no indication yesterday that any of the justices wanted to hear the case of Centennial School District vs. Gregoire (No. 90-304).

The newest justice, David H. Souter, who began serving yesterday morning after taking his judicial oath in a brief formal ceremony, took no part in the court's action on the religion case or on any other cases acted upon by his new colleagues.

In another action yesterday involving controversies in education,the court allowed a state court in Virginia to enforce a Lynchburg, Va., man's will, which provided for a cutoff of his bequest to a racially segregated private school if it admitted blacks.

The Prince Edward School, a one-time "segregation academy," had received money from that bequest for 18 years -- until it began admitting blacks in 1986. When that happened, and when other schools which would have then received the money also chose to integrate, the money from the estate was shifted to a nursing home.

Virginia's Supreme Court upheld the will, and the Supreme Court simply declined to review that result, in the case of Prince Edward School vs. Hermitage (No. 89-1901).

In a third school case, the court refused for the third time in two years to rule on whether public school students have a constitutional right not to be paddled or beaten for misconduct at school. Lower courts are split on that question. Only one justice, Byron R. White, voted to hear the case and clear up the conflict.

The issue was posed anew by the parents of a 12-year-old boy from Dickinson, Texas, who claimed he was beaten by the school principal for misbehaving in class. The boy has a behavioral handicap. A lower court denied his parents' plea for civil rights damages payments (Fee vs. Herndon, No. 90-249).

The court did agree to hear a number of cases yesterday. The most significant was a test case on the constitutionality of the police tactic of boarding buses during temporary stops to check passengers for illegal drugs (Florida vs. Bostick, No. 89-1717).

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