Currently pending before the Pennsylvania State Senate is Bill Number 1007, which would prevent a school board from appointing or dismissing a superintendent where three or more of its members have lost their bids to remain on the board in the primary elections. The nature of the issue is that school board members run for re-election in the primaries in May and, even if they lose in the primary, continue to sit on the board through the regular election in November and until the new board is installed in December. In the past, the board, including the members who have been “voted off”, could take actions to either appoint or dismiss a superintendent during that time-frame and Senate Bill 1007 attempts to limit the ability to do so.  

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Religion in Public Schools - A Review of Some Recent Cases

This summer has seen several opinions from around the country on the issue of religion in public schools.  Here is a brief synopsis of several cases.


In the case of Roark v. South Iron R-1 School District, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in part a decision that barred a school district in Missouri from allowing representatives of Gideons International from distributing Bibles to fifth graders during the school day, a thirty year old tradition.  While decision to end the practice is certainly not shocking, the decision does offer some insight to school districts that are faced with a situation of having old traditions that need change.  In light of the lawsuit about the Bibles, the local school district adopted a new policy related to the distribution of literature in its schools, which was also challenged.  The District Court, seeing a tradition of Bible distribution, held the new policy was done for the purpose of promoting religion.  However, the Eight Circuit disagreed and stated that the new policy was facially neutral, applied to all groups that wished to distribute literature in the schools and had not yet been put into practice.  Thus, districts faced with attempting to adopt policies to change outdated practices can do so, if the policy is facially neutral, applies to all group and, when put into practice, is applied in a content neutral manner.


In Christian Legal Society v. Eck, it was held that a public law school may properly withhold funding from a religious group that prevents membership on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.  In Eck a public law school provided funds through a mandatory student activities fee, but had policies that required groups that accepted the funds must be open to all students and not discriminate on the basis of, among other things, religion and sexual orientation.  The Christian Legal Society required members affirm a statement of faith that would exclude non-Christians and homosexuals from membership.  The law school refused to provide the group funding, but did allow them access to school facilities and all other law school services that other groups had access to.  The Court upheld the decision of the law school finding the policy was neutral, both on its face and its application, and that the school allowed students in the group access to all other services available to other groups.  This case is another reminder that policies and practices must be neutral to the issue of religion to stand up in court.


In Corder v. Lewis Palmer School District No. 38, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the requirement by a school district that students speaking as valedictorians at graduation provide their speech to the administration for approval and could be disciplined if they sway from the submitted speech.  In this case, a student submitted her speech, but then deviated from it when the speech was given by inviting the audience to find out more about a relationship with Jesus Christ.  The student was required by the school to issue a public apology prior to receiving her diploma for any offense the statement may have caused for deviating from the speech she submitted. The Court reasoned that graduations are a school activity over which the school could exercise control and it had the ability to have more control over the activity, as opposed to speech not supported by the school.  With the analysis, it would be interesting to see if the student had simply yelled this statement out if the speech would be protected.  Nonetheless, the lesson for schools is that if you sponsor the activity, you are able to have more control over what is said. 


Finally, a little closer to home in Busch v. Marple Newtown School District, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the action of a school district which would not allow a parent to read scripture as part of a presentation to her child’s class.  The presentation was part of a week long project in which each student was the student of the week and one component was that the parent of that student was allowed to present something to the class.  The Court held that given the student was in kindergarten and the students in the class were required to be there, the presentation could appear to be an endorsement of religion.  In addition, because other parts of the project allowed the student to voice his religious views, for example he made a poster that included among other things a drawing of his church and the statement that he enjoyed going to church, the decision of the school was not based on discriminating against the parents’ religion.     


Third Circuit Denies Reimbursement when Medical Needs Can be Separated from Educational Needs

In the case of Mary Courtney T. v. School District of Philadelphia, in which a decision was issued July 31, 2009, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that where medical and other needs of a special education student can be separated out from the educational problems and needs of the student, the school district is not responsible for payment of those services which are not educational. 

In Mary Courtney T., the student was placed in a long-term residential psychiatric treatment center, which did not have educational accreditations and had no on-site school, special education teachers or school affiliations.  The evidence in the case, according to the Court, showed that the student's treatment at this facility was medical, despite the fact that it contained what could arguably be classified as educational components.  

The Court emphasized that it was not the tools used, but the goals of the program that are to be used to determine if the program was educational or medical.  The Court further explained that because the student's education was impeded by a complex and acute medical condition, and not a lack of educational services or a specific kind of placement, it was not the responsibility of the school district to address this need.  The Court distinguished this case from other cases where a simple change in placement, without the need for more extensive medical intervention, would allow a student to access his or her education.        

The Court explained that there must be a link between the treatment provided and the child's learning needs to qualify for reimbursement under the IDEA.  Put another way, the Court explained it "must consider whether the residential placement ... was necessary to provide [the student] with special education."  The Court looked at the program provided to the student and found that it was related to her medical needs, not her learning needs, and found that it did not qualify for reimbursement.  

Finally, the Court took an interesting approach on the issue of reimbursement, by skipping the normal first step of determining whether the school district provided an appropriate placement and only looked at whether the placement chosen by the parents, the psychiatric treatment center, was educationally appropriate.