NASHVILLE — A federal appeals court has ruled that a public school district in Tennessee did not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause when it contracted with a Christian school to run its alternative program for students with behavioral or educational challenges.
According to reports, in 2003, two teachers with the Jefferson County School district filed suit after learning that officials had contracted with Kingswood School, a nonprofit Christian institution that is licensed by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.
The Jefferson County School Board had closed its alternative school due to a budget shortfall, but had to find other arrangements because the program is mandated under Tennessee law. It found that partnering with Kingswood saved the district $170,000 a year, and allowed students to benefit from services otherwise not available.
State-licensed teachers were employed for the program, and all religious teaching was excluded from the curriculum. However, Christian icons remained on the walls of the chapel—which was not used for the alternative program—and Scriptures continued to be featured on some of the school documents.
As a result, two teachers sued the district, asserting that the arrangement violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee ruled in favor of the teachers, finding the contract to violate the Constitution. But the matter was appealed, and on Thursday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the lower court’s ruling, stating that the district was not endorsing religion through the arrangement.
“In the present case, a non-governmental-entity—Kingswood—was responsible for the few religious references that were conveyed to observers. Those references occurred because Kingswood already operated, in some aspects, as a Christian school,” it wrote. “But the purpose of the arrangement with Kingswood was purely academic, and the religious references merely incidental.”
“[I]t is clear that the taxpayers, school board, parents, and students all benefited from the relationship between the Board and Kingswood,” the three-judge panel continued. “While this benefit was being conferred, parents and children received only slight exposure to religious content. The exposure they did receive stemmed from Kingswood’s pre-existing status as an unapologetically Christian institution.”
Therefore, the court concluded that no religious endorsement was involved.
“The mere status of Kingswood as a religious organization does not itself give rise to endorsement,” it ruled. “The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), one of the Christian legal organizations that filed an amicus brief before the Sixth Circuit, applauded the decision.
“Students should not be penalized because a few people fail to understand what the First Amendment actually requires,” said ADF Legal Counsel Rory Gray. “The Jefferson County School Board is committed to helping children in need and providing the best educational services. … The Constitution does not require government entities to shun all contact or cooperation with religious organizations.”