Schools get Free Exercise Clause refresher course

Schools get Free Exercise Clause refresher course

Schools get Free Exercise Clause refresher course

Lawsuits have been filed against public school systems that are discriminating against homeschoolers and Christian curriculum.

Attorneys with a public interest law firm have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Religious Rights Foundation of Pennsylvania and the parents of two Centre Country parochial school students.

The school district is said to be "denying parochial students the ability to participate in extracurricular and cocurricular activities at the school district" in violation of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause in the United States Constitution.

"In Pennsylvania, homeschool students are able to participate in these activities, as well as charter school students -- neither of which are enrolled in the State College Area School District," explains Thomas Breth, special counsel to the Thomas More Society.

Breth, Thomas (Thomas More Society) Breth

The school district has a non-discrimination policy that permits non-parochial school students who reside in the district access to school district educational programs and activities. Yet, the school district justifies its exclusion of parochial school students from the same programs and activities by claiming their inclusion would take away opportunities from students attending district schools.

"The fundamental issue is that the State College Area School District is permitting non-students -- students that aren't enrolled in the school district -- to participate in these school district-sponsored activities while excluding parochial school students," the attorney continues.

He says when similar cases have come before the United States Supreme Court in the past, the court has ruled that denying generally available benefits solely on account of religious identity imposes penalties on the free exercise of religion.

Breth expects to have a status conference in front of the judge within the next 60 days. He says the plaintiffs are asking that the students they represent be given the same opportunities to participate in activities as other non-students of the school district.

"We are hoping that they will see the wisdom behind the legal theories and the legal principles that are supported by our United States Constitution, and also the Pennsylvania Constitution, that indicate that students have a fundamental right in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to an education," Breth says.

AFN is seeking comment from the school district.

In Massachusetts, a Christian law firm is prepared to fight a public school system for unlawfully discriminating against a Christian school for the curriculum it plans to use.

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, reports that Greenfield Public Schools (GPS District) has refused to approve the application of the Providence Moldovian Baptist Church and its school, Providence Christian Academy, because of its religious mission to teach students using a Christian school curriculum.

Liberty Counsel has sent a letter accusing the district of violating the First Amendment and Massachusetts law and demanding that it refrain from further discrimination and avoid legal action by approving the application by August 10, 2023.

Staver, Mat (Liberty Counsel) Staver

"This curriculum … is accredited by a lot of different accrediting institutions, and it's been around for a long time. It's produced by Pensacola Christian College, and it's used a lot for homeschoolers," Staver explains. "In fact, in Massachusetts, homeschoolers are able to use the Abeka program, so it should be a no-brainer that the school would not take issue with the Abeka program."

Instead, the GPS District has gone on record to denigrate Abeka, Christian teaching, Christian curriculum, and Providence Christian Academy.

"[To say] that their kids in Massachusetts should have nothing to do with this kind of teaching is egregious," Staver contends. "So, we sent that letter demanding that they respond with full authorization for the school so they can operate effectively on September the 5th. If they don't, then we will litigate."

He adds that this is "an outrageous situation."

In Wisconsin, a conservative law firm this week filed an open records lawsuit against a school in Eau Claire. Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) attorney Cory Brewer says the focus is on parental involvement and school districts' transparency.

"What prompted this lawsuit was an announcement that was made to children on the second to last day of school … in early June," she explains. "Students were called into the music room to hear about one of their teachers that was undergoing a gender transition from male to female."

Parents were not notified about that ahead of time, and official requests for the script were denied, with parents and WILL being told that the statement was only to be read verbally, not shared electronically.

"We've asked the court to require the district to produce this document," Brewer details about the lawsuit. "We think it's a pretty clear violation of open records law for the district to withhold it."

The district now claims it cannot produce the statement because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Brewer, Cory (WILL) Brewer

"After the events of June 5 and the inquiries received from certain parents, it was decided that there should be a formal investigation of the events of that day (and the planning that preceded that day) to determine if there were any missteps under school district policy," a statement from the Eau Claire Area School District to AFN reads. "With the summer season upon us, the investigation has encountered some issues with witness/employee availability. Work on the investigation is ongoing."

Meanwhile, WILL hopes to address the "pattern of this lack of transparency."

"Parents in states all over the country are understandably frustrated, so we're really glad to be taking a stand on their behalf and advocating for more transparency and more parental involvement on these types of issues," she says.