A federal appeals court panel yesterday overturned a judge's ruling that the Hawkins County, Tenn., public schools had violated the Constitution by requiring fundamentalist Christian children to use textbooks that offended their religious beliefs.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati ruled 3 to 0 that the textbook challenge, one of the most publicized of the recent fundamentalist cases against "secular humanist" teachings, should be remanded to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas G. Hull with directions that the case be dismissed.
In finding for the school board and against the parents, the appeals court also reversed Hull's order that the public schools pay private school tuition and other costs to the families, who had said the books promoted "anti-Christian" themes including feminism and pacifism.
"What we do hold," wrote the panel, "is that the requirement that public school students study a basal reader series chosen by the school authorities does not create an unconstitutional burden under the free exercise clause when the students are not required to affirm or deny a belief or engage or refrain from engaging in a practice prohibited or required by their religion."
Although an attorney for the parents said they would appeal, the decision moves closer to resolution one of three recent court cases that address the place of religion in the public schools.
In another celebrated textbook battle, a federal judge in Mobile, Ala., in March banned about 40 public school textbooks, agreeing with more than 600 fundamentalist parents who filed suit against state and county officials, charging that the texts promoted the "religion" of secular humanism. That ruling is awaiting a decision from an appeals panel in Atlanta.
Fundamentalists in the third case suffered a major defeat when the Supreme Court ruled in June that Louisiana's law requiring "equal time" for teaching evolution and "creation science" was unconstitutional.
The Tennessee case stemmed from a 1983 lawsuit in which parents challenged an elementary school reading series published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in use in Hawkins County public schools. The parents cited scores of offensive passages, including selections from "The Diary of Anne Frank," which they said implied that all religions are equal.
They also objected to "The Wizard of Oz," saying it diminished the divine role in determining human qualities.
In October, Hull ordered the schools to excuse the children from reading class, allowing the parents to teach their children at home, subject to Tennessee laws governing home schooling. He stopped short of granting the parents' request that the schools supply alternative textbooks that would not offend their beliefs.
In yesterday's ruling, written for the majority by Chief Judge Pierce Lively, the appeals panel said: "There was no evidence that the conduct required of the students was forbidden by their religion. Rather, the witnesses testified that reading the Holt series 'could' or 'might' lead students to come to conclusions that were contrary to teachings of their and their parents' beliefs. This is not sufficient to establish an unconstitutional burden."
Timothy Dyk, an attorney with the Washington firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, who represented the Hawkins County school board, said the decision "reflects a great sensitivity to the role of the public schools and how impossible it would be to do what the plaintiffs would like to do."
Michael Ferris, an attorney for the families, told a reporter for the Associated Press that the decision would be appealed to the Supreme Court. "We've always viewed this level of the decision as just a whistlestop on the way to an ultimate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court," Ferris said.
Ferris is associated with Concerned Women of America, a conservative group that has supported the families. The school board has been supported by the liberal People for the American Way, whose chairman, John Buchanan, said the ruling would slow the "drive" of members of the religious right to "remake American public education in their own image."