A senior federal judge "failed to understand" crucial arguments made last year by lawyers for a white girl who was expelled from a Woodbridge church school for allegedly dating a black classmate, the girl's lawyer told a federal appeals court today.
As a result, U.S. District Judge Oren R. Lewis, 77, "improperly held" that the school's pastor had a constitutionally protected right to expel the girl under the guise of a religious belief, the attorney, Victor Glasberg, said.
The pastor, Aleck Lee Bledsoe, was exercising his personal opposition to interracial dating rather than following church policy, Glasberg contended.
Attorney I. J. Crickenberger, representing Bledsoe and the Marumsco Christian School, vigorously disagreed with Glasberg, arguing that the school and its parent church were "intimately entwined" and that Beldsoe's beliefs were identical to those of the church.
Glasberg asked a three-judge panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out Lewis' 1979 decision -- which a court source said at the time Lewis had agonized over -- and order a new trial. The judges took the appeal under advisement.
No matter how the judges rule, the case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court as a classic confrontation between civil rights and religious freedom, lawyers familiar with the case said.
Melissa Fiedler, who was 14 at the time the civil rights suit was filed last year, was expelled on Jan. 8, 1979 after Bledsoe ordered her to stop speaking with Rufus Bostic III, a black student at the 165-student fundamentalist Baptist School, court papers state.
Bledsoe, a stocky man with a crewcut who wears a "Jesus First" tie-tac, testified last year that such Biblical lines as "God created the firmaments and water" supported his belief in racial separation. Gail Bostic, the young Bostic's sister, testified then that Bledsoe had told her he opposed interracial marriage in part because ". . . the sex drive is greater in black men than in white men."
Rufus and Gail Bostic withdrew from the school after Fielder was expelled. Fielder's younger sister also was expelled by Bledsoe after he learned the Fiedler family was planning to file suit.
In his arguments today, Glasberg claimed that Judge Lewis failed to understand that Bledsoe's personal views were not the school's views, that Bledsoe's personal views were not religious doctrine, and the school was not permitted to discriminate racially because it drew its student body from the general population, and not exclusively from the church.
Churches can set their own policies on such matters as the protected exercise of their religious beliefs, something that schools cannot do, Glasberg said later outside of court.
Crickenberger argued Melissa Fiedler was expelled because she was a "discipline problem" who had ignored earlier warnings from Bledsoe about her relationship with Bostic, whom Crickenberger called "one of the most popular students at school."
Crickenberger said the church's policy, which was duplicated by the school, was to "promote racial harmony." He said the proof of this was Bledsoe's backing of Rufus Bostic Jr., the father of the black student when he successfully sought to become a church deacon.
Crickenberger urged the panel to uphold Lewis' ruling, which was issued last Aug. 27.
Judge Harry Phillips asked Crickenberger why the school or church policy against interracial dating had never been written down. Crickenberger replied that "Baptists don't like to shackle ministers" with guidelines and said Bledsoe's opposition to racial dating based on his reading of the Bible, was held by many people.
A court brief filed by the United Methodist Church at Fielder's request said virtually none of the "hundreds of citations" submitted by Bledsoe to support his beliefs mentions race relations or sexuality. The brief supports Glasberg's contention that Bledsoe was constructing his own policy on the subject, and not following an established religious belief.
Another brief, from the U.S. Department of Justice, also backed the Fiedler position, stating that the school does not have "an equal right to practice racial discrimination against (its) students."
Neither brief was discussed in court.
Outside the courtroom, Glasberg said if the judges fail to overturn Judge Lewis, "it will mean you can practice racial discrimination in a church."
Bledsoe said his school, once near bankruptcy, is being reorganized, and now has 80 students. "All we can do is pray" that the appeals court upholds Judge Lewis Bledsoe said.