A federal judge in Alexandria yesterday refused to support a lawyer's claim that racial discrimination led to a white girl's expulsion from a Woodbridge private church school after she held hands with a black classmate.
U.S. District Court Judge Oren R. Lewis denied a request for summary judgment by lawyers representing the girl's family, after attorneys for the Marumsco Christian School said school officials had acted out of religious belief, not racial bias.
"There's too much dispute between you lawyers on the facts," Lewis told attorney Victor Glasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union at yesterday's preliminary hearing. "Unless you can work out an agreement, we'll take the merits up in trial," expected to start in August, he said.
Had Lewis ruled that racial bias was the motive behind the expulsion, the trial's only issue would have been the amount of damages due the family, which seeks $50,000 for alleged violation of its civil rights.
Glasberg represents the family of Melissa Fiedler, 14, a Manassas student who was expelled last Jan. 9 after she was seen holding hands with a black classmate despite warnings from principal Aleck Lee Bledsoe against doing so.
Glasberg said in court that Melissa Fiedler's sister Charlotte, 11, also was expelled after their father threatened to sue.
Theodore H. Amshoff Jr., a Louisville, Ky., specialist in religious liberty cases who is representing Bledsoe and the school, told Lewis that Bledsoe's actions reflected his religious beliefs and did not constitute racial discrimination.
When the case was filed March 1, Bledsoe told a reporter, "There was an incident involving interracial dating, which we are opposed to. We have a perfect right to expel." Bledsoe restated that position in a deposition Glasberg filed yesterday in the case.
Glasberg yesterday told Lewis that Melissa Fielder was not "romantically" involved with the unidentified black student but was "friendly" with him because they lived in the same neighborhood and traveled to school together.
According to papers filed in the case, there were four black students at the time in the school's 120-member student body. The black student in yesterday's case was not expelled.
During the hearing, Glasberg told Lewis that Bledsoe's attorneys had told him Bledsoe was filing for bankruptcy on behalf of himself and the school. Shortly afterward, the attorneys, Amshoff and Jack Crickenberger, asked to be excused from the case because of "irreconcilable differences" between them and Bledsoe involving money and attitude toward the case.
Lewis ordered Bledsoe summoned to court and told him it was in his best interest to cooperate with his lawyers.
Lewis denied the lawyers' request to leave the case. "I have grave doubts that paid attorneys ought to be able to withdraw," he said.
Amshoff said his retainer only covered the cost of airfare from Louisville and that Crickenberger had not been paid at all. Outside the court Amshoff said Bledsoe usually did not return his telephone calls.
Asked for comment outside the court, Bledsoe, a short, stocky man with close-cropped black hair, said, "Are you a reporter? I don't talk to reporters."
According to the suit, Melissa Fiedler attended a school Christmas party and a basketball game in January with her black school friend. Bledsoe disapproved fo the relationship and ordered Melissa to "cease being friendly with the black student," or face expulsion, the suit alleges.
Glasberg said in court that when Bledsoe saw the two teen-agers holding hands in a school hallway, he asked if she remembered the warning. When Fiedler said she did, Bledsoe said, "all right, you're expelled," Glasberg said.