October 2001 AU Bulletin

Supreme Court Accepts Ohio School Voucher Case

As Church & State went to press, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether voucher subsidies for religious schools are constitutional.

The justices have agreed to hear Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a case concerning a controversial Ohio program that provides tax dollars for tuition at religious and other private schools in Cleveland. Oral arguments before the high court will occur later this year or early next with a decision to follow by July.

"This is probably the most important church-state case in the last half-century," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It will be a historic showdown over government funding of religion."

Lynn said it is vital for the high court to strike down the Ohio scheme. "Voucher programs force taxpayers to put money in the collection plates of churches," he said. "The court should never permit this to happen. The justices should uphold church-state separation and slam the door on this reckless scheme."

Two lower federal courts have declared the program unconstitutional. Last December, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that taxpayer funding of religious schools violates the separation of church and state.

Look for more details in the November issue of Church & State.

Rehnquist Rejects 'Moment Of Silence' Appeal

Chief Justice William Rehnquist has turned down a request to stop Virginia's state-mandated moment of silence in public schools.

In a four-page ruling Sept. 12, Rehnquist rejected an appeal to issue a temporary injunction to prevent Virginia public schools from setting aside 60 seconds each morning for students to "meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity."

The Virginia legislature passed the measure last year. The Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the law, arguing that it was government promotion of prayer in public schools.

The ACLU, however, has suffered a series of legal setbacks in the Brown v. Gilmore case. In July, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the law does not violate the First Amendment. The ruling upheld a December decision by a federal district court judge, who also ruled for the statute.

The civil liberties group had asked the Supreme Court to order the schools to end the moment of silence, pending an appeal.

The case, however, is still ongoing. Despite Rehnquist's denial of an injunction, the Supreme Court has not yet announced whether it will take the case.

The last time the high court considered a similar case, the justices ruled in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) that an Alabama law mandating a moment of silence in the state's public schools was unconstitutional because the purpose of the effort was religious.

Florida County Rejects 'In God We Trust' Posters

A county in southwest Florida has decided not to display "In God We Trust" posters in public school classrooms, rejecting an appeal from a local Religious Right group.

On Aug. 23, the Collier County School Board voted 3-1 to decline a request from the local Christian Coalition affiliate to post the motto. The negative vote came after a heated four-hour debate in a packed auditorium, where more than 200 people from the community had gathered to voice opinions about the project.

In the days leading up to the vote, Americans United for Separation of Church and State contacted board members urging them to reject the Christian Coalition's request.

"The schools and education need to remain neutral," said Anne Goodnight, chairwoman of the school board. "I don't have a problem with the plaque, but I don't believe the plaque should be placed in our schools."

The Collier County development is the latest episode in a campaign started by a Mississippi-based Religious Right group to circumvent court rulings barring religious instruction in public schools. The Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association (AFA), published a column in the March 2000 issue of the AFA Journal asking Religious Right activists across the country to purchase 11 x 14-inch posters from his group and display them in schools and other public buildings.

Since that time, several school boards and state legislatures have considered the scheme. So far, only the Mississippi legislature has passed a law requiring placement of the posters in public schools.

Teacher's T-Shirt Inappropriate In Class, Court Rules

A public school was within its rights to restrict a teacher from wearing a T-shirt with a religious message to class, a federal district court has ruled.

In May 1999, Ella Downing, a high school music teacher in New Haven, Conn., wore a shirt with the words "JESUS 2000 -- J2K" on the front. School administrators, concerned about violating church-state separation, instructed Downing to either go home to change clothes or cover the religious message while at school. She chose the latter.

Downing then filed suit against the school district, claiming that the school suppressed her free speech rights.

On Aug. 24, U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill ruled in favor of the district, concluding that the school was complying with the church-state separation provisions of the First Amendment.

"A school risks violation of the establishment clause if any of its teachers' activities gives the impression that the school endorses religion," Underhill wrote in Downing v. West Haven Board of Education. "For the defendants to have permitted Downing to wear a shirt during classroom instruction that was emblazoned with the words 'JESUS 2000 J2K' would likely have violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Such speech does not have a secular purpose, would have the primary effect of advancing religion, and would have entangled the school with religion."

Georgia Biology Text Passes Test At State Appeals Court

A Georgia appeals court has ruled against a public high school student who claimed that lessons about evolution in her biology textbook violated her religious liberties.

Rebecca Moeller filed suit in 1999 as a 14-year-old in Muscogee County's public school system, claiming that the First Amendment protects her right not to be taught evolution. She claimed such study denigrates her creationist beliefs and therefore interferes with her free exercise of religion.

In particular, Moeller objected to a passage from the science text that noted the creationist beliefs of many cultures, but said that such beliefs cannot be tested using the scientific method. Moeller complained to her father, Dr. Donald R. Moeller, a dentist in Columbus, Ga., who helped her file suit.

A lower state court quickly rejected the case last year, concluding that Moeller's constitutional rights were not violated. On Aug. 9, a Georgia court of appeals unanimously upheld the lower court's ruling in Moeller v. Schrenko.

"The use of the textbook in question in no way forces Moeller to refrain from practicing her religious beliefs," said Judge G. Alan Blackburn in a five-page ruling. "And it does not impinge on her parents' instruction of their daughter. As such, Moeller's free exercise of her religion has not been substantially burdened, and use of the textbook does not violate her First Amendment rights."

Moeller's father indicated he's not through with the case, and will ask the state legislature for assistance.

"It's not over," he told the Fulton County Daily Report. "I want equal time."

'Eruv' Isn't Required In New Jersey, Federal Court Rules

A New Jersey community can deny Orthodox Jews use of public utility poles and street signs to post religious symbols, a federal court has ruled.

On Aug. 9, U.S. District Court Judge William G. Bassler ruled that the Tenafly Borough Council could legally restrict Orthodox Jews from using public property to erect an "eruv" (religious boundary) around the community.

An eruv incorporates homes into a larger territory, allowing observant Orthodox Jews to partake in activities outside their homes that would ordinarily be prohibited on the Jewish Sabbath, such as pushing a baby stroller. The eruv is constructed by tying markers to community poles such as light posts, letting other Jews in the community know where the boundary's limits are.

The Tenafly Borough Council voted 5-0 to remove the eruv from public property, prompting the Tenafly Eruv Association to file suit in federal court. Local government officials argued that permitting utility poles to be permanently used for a religious purpose would violate the constitutional principle of church-state separation. Bassler agreed.

"Since the Borough Council's decision was narrowly tailored to prohibit only conduct that might generate the appearance of an entanglement between church and state, no constitutional infirmities resulted, and there is no cause for a court to second guess such a decision," Bassler ruled in Tenafly Eruv Association v. Borough of Tenafly.

Illinois Governor Approves Islamic Food Law

Illinois Gov. George Ryan has signed legislation to enforce Islamic food preparation standards.

In August, Ryan signed into law a measure that creates criminal penalties for those who mislabel food that has not been prepared according to Islamic law.

Effective Jan. 1, 2002, food manufacturers in Illinois face fines of up to $1,000 and possible prosecution if they mislabel products. Most food is considered halal, or lawful, by Muslims, except products prepared using alcohol, pork, animal blood or meat from carnivorous animals or animals improperly killed.

The Illinois "Halal Food Act" is similar to one passed in New Jersey in July 2000. According to the American Muslim Council, which held a halal legislation workshop at its 10th annual convention this June, Muslim leaders in other states are starting to push for similar bills.

While Muslims in Illinois are glad for the assurance that food will be properly labeled halal, they also see the Halal Food Act -- which passed both houses of state legislature with bipartisan support -- as a step toward general acceptance of their faith's traditions.

However, due to church-state separation implications, the Illinois and New Jersey laws are of questionable legality. A similar statute in New York enforcing Jewish kosher rules was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge last year.

'Holy Russia' Is Guardian Of Christianity, Says Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his nation is "the guardian of Christianity" after visiting a monastery in the Solovki islands in August.

After noting that Russia was once widely known as "Holy Russia," Putin, the former head of the KGB, said the "country is bestowed with a special role as the guardian of Christianity."

Putin went on to say, "Russia would have difficulty in becoming a viable state" were it not for the Orthodox religion. "It is thus very important to return to this source," he said.

The Russian president added that Russia, which for decades imposed atheism, would hardly exist without Christianity and Orthodox belief.