Fired Intelligent Design proponent says not a religious view

There is no direct school link, but I was reading a news item about a JPL (you know, "Jet Propulsion Labratories") employee who claimed he was fired for espousing his intelligent design beliefs at work.  Naturally, JPL denies the allegation, but the more interesting thing is that during opening statements at the trial, the attorney for the fired employee said that intelligent design is not a religious view.  This despite the central notion that an intelligent being directed the way that the cosmos evolved.

Of course, most readers will have at least heard of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case.  There, Pennsylvania showed itself as a leader: first to adopt a policy allowing intelligent design to be taught as science, then first in the nation to have that policy struck down by the court.  Good going Pennsylvania.  What Judge Jones ruled was that intelligent design is a "religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."  It therefore should not be taught as science in our public schools.

This case was not appealed, so it remains just that one lonely 100+ page decision.  Clearly, it did not influence the attorney arguing for the fired JPL employee.

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A January Reminder About Religion In School

It is January.  From the kids' point of view, they are back to school after an all too brief  winter recess.  From the point of view of administrators and the attorneys representing them, it is the end of another season fielding questions about religion in schools.  We now have another 10 or even 11 months before it will all come around again.

In the meantime, to remind us of the season just past, the Federal District Court in Delaware (part of the Third Circuit along with Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands) just issued an opinion concerning a district where a public elementary school teacher was reading Christmas stories to her kids every day in December.   The court there did not say it was too religious, but it refused to say it was not, either.

This was an interim decision simply to determine which issues had sufficient legal support to go to trial, so this case is not over.  But for those of us standing on the sidelines watching, the decision gave a nice but brief review of some of the law related to the 1st Amendment Establishment clause provision of the U.S. Constitution.

As a guideline, school administrators and teachers should remember to ensure that all displays and activities should have at least some secular purpose, should not have a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and finally, it should not "foster[s] an excessive government entanglement with religion," (the "entanglement" portion of the above, "requires more than mere interaction between church and state, for some level of interaction has always been tolerated"). 

Also, before a member of the general public complains, that person should also stand back and examine the offending display or activity as a "reasonable observer" who is "familiar with the history and context" of such displays or activities would see it.  If that reasonable person would not see it as an "endorsement of religion" then the courts likely will not take any action and the member of the public should not, either.

The federal case in the District Court of Delaware was Jane Doe v. Cape Henlopen School District, 2011 WL 64073 (D.Del.), but the cited language above is from the Third Circuit cases Stratechuk v. Bd. of Educ., S. Orange-Maplewood Sch. Dist., 587 F.3d 597 (3d Cir.2009), and Child Evangelism Fellowship of N.J. Inc. v. Stafford Twp. Sch. Dist., 386 F.3d 514, 534 (3d Cir.2004).

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.     

 

Protect your right to the ADA religious exemption

Religiously-affiliated independent schools and colleges need to take certain steps to have the protection offered by the religious exemption in the Americans With Disabilities Act, which states: “The provisions of this subchapter shall not apply to . . . religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.” 42 U.S.C. § 12187. Whether an institution is entitled to the exemption is a factual question. A summary of factors is at the end of this entry.  

The Third Circuit “touched” on the issue of ADA’s religious exemption as applied to private schools in Doe v. Abington Friends School, 480 F.3d 252 (3d Cir. 2007). The plaintiffs claimed Abington Friends School (“AFS”) discriminated against their son, a student with disabilities (ADHD and learning disabled) attending the school. Among other things, the plaintiffs claimed AFS used improper discipline and failed to accommodate him.   Continue Reading...

Muslim attire and track suits: let religious belief run free

A multi-colored unitard running outfit is not what I usually think of when it comes to Muslim attire. But according to an Associated Press article in The Washington Post, a high school student was disqualified from a track event because her attire, a multi-colored unitard that complied with her Muslim beliefs, did not comply with competition rules. Note: according to the student, the unitard is not a performance-enhancing item.   

Although she had competed in other scholastic track events wearing the same outfit (and apparently with much success), officials at an invitational event in Montgomery County, Maryland found the outfit violated its rules. The outfit – a custom one-piece blue and orange unitard – covered her head, arms, torso and legs, overtop of which she wore her school’s uniform. Evidently, the unitard violated a rule against multi-colored uniforms and track officials offered to permit her to wear a white tee-shirt over the unitard covering the offending multiple colors. Track officials denied that the decision was based in any religious bias. 

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