High court declines religious appeal Tenn. teen had tried to write school paper on life of Jesus

November 28, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and federal education officials have told public school students across the country that they "should feel free to express" their religious beliefs in class assignments, but that idea got nowhere in the Supreme Court yesterday.

In a brief order issued without comment, the justices turned aside a claim by a young woman in Tennessee that her constitutional right to free speech was violated when a ninth-grade teacher refused to let her write a class paper about Jesus Christ.

The court's refusal to hear the appeal of Brittney Kaye Settle of Dickson, Tenn., doesn't mean that the justices agreed with the teacher, or with a lower court ruling upholding the teacher's decision.

But the action did illustrate the difficulty public school students might have in trying to use the First Amendment's free speech clause in court to settle a religious expression conflict at school. Legal advocacy groups seeking to restore religion to public schools have relied increasingly upon free speech arguments.

A federal appeals court, rejecting Ms. Settle's challenge, ruled in May that public school teachers have wide discretion to approve or disapprove the topics students may choose for classroom assignments.

"Students do not lose entirely their right to express themselves as individuals in the classroom," the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said.

But, it added, "federal courts should exercise particular restraint in classroom conflicts between student and teacher over matters falling within the ordinary authority of the teacher over curriculum and course content. Learning is more vital in the classroom than free speech."

Student carries on

Ms. Settle, now 19, has since graduated from high school, but she had kept her case alive by seeking damages from the teacher, school officials and the Dickson County school board. That aim failed with yesterday's Supreme Court order.

She also has been seeking a court ruling to erase the failing grade she got as a result of the classroom dispute with her ninth-grade teacher, Dana Ramsey. Ms. Ramsey at first vetoed "The Life of Jesus Christ" as the theme of Ms. Settle's research paper, and then said no to a second topic, "A Scientific and Historical Approach to Jesus Christ."

When Ms. Settle, joined by her father, sued in federal court, they agreed that teachers have authority to decide what to assign students to do. But when a student is given a chance to choose the topic, then the topic picked may not be vetoed simply because it was religious in nature, they said. That is censorship, the lawsuit contended, and violates the right to free speech.

The appeal to the Supreme Court tried to make use of statements last summer by Mr. Clinton and by Education Secretary Richard W. Riley.

In a July speech, the president said that the Constitution "does not convert our schools into religion-free zones."

As an example of what he argued the Constitution would permit, the president said: "Students should feel free to express their religion and their beliefs in homework, through art work, during class presentations, as long as it's relevant to the assignment."

When Mr. Riley issued a statement of advice in August to schools in all states to follow up on the president's speech, he repeated the president's comment, and said such homework should be "free of discrimination based on the religious content."

While Ms. Settle's teacher gave a variety of explanations for rejecting the paper topics dealing with Jesus Christ, the appeal to the Supreme Court noted that the teacher had said that personal religious expressions are "just not an appropriate thing to do in a public school."

It takes the votes of four Supreme Court justices to grant review of a case. There was no indication yesterday that any justice had voted to hear Ms. Settle's case.

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