A decision involving Jefferson County, Tenn., students schooled in a Christian setting without any proof of actual proselytizing could set the stage for the barring of any outsourcing of public education functions to religious institutions.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips has issued a groundbreaking ruling in which he contends it doesn't matter if the Jefferson County Board of Education was simply trying to save money -- not souls -- when it turned to Christian-based Kingswood School for teaching its troubled students to run afoul of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It is a ruling that could have far-reaching effects on efforts to trim school budgets by turning to cheaper alternatives at faith-based organizations.
"We filed an appeal," said defense attorney Jonathan Taylor. "We just don't think the evidence and the testimony formed a foundation for the violation of the establishment clause," which is the bedrock of church-state separation.
In 2003, Jefferson County's school system was financially strapped. Its board decided to contract out the teaching of troubled students assigned to its alternative school to Kingswood, a nonprofit Christian organization. At least two other Tennessee school systems also opted to send their alternative school students there because it was cheaper to do so than run their own alternative school.
Jefferson County alternative school teachers whose jobs were at risk because of the decision filed suit. Years of legal wrangling ensued, with a federal appeals court rejecting the claim the teachers had a right to sue because their jobs were impacted.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit sent back to district judge Phillips one key issue -- could the teachers as mere taxpayers allege a violation of the establishment clause, and, if so, what constitutes a violation?
In the Jefferson County case, Phillips agreed Kingswood did not require public school students to attend church services nor did it include religious instruction as part of the curriculum for those students.
But Kingswood clearly held itself out to be a Christian-based organization, he said. Its campus included a church. Scripture abounded in its decor. Nearly every document sent home to parents, including report cards and mandatory monthly forms, included Scripture.
The school board, Phillips said, also had made clear it only sought to save cash in sending students to Kingswood and did nothing overtly to push Christian principles on those students or endorse Kingswood's religious beliefs.
Still, he ruled, perception proved reality.
"Regardless of the board's actual intent, the establishment clause is violated when government actions convey a message of endorsement of religion," Phillips wrote.
Phillips has hit Jefferson County schools, already laboring under a deficit, with damages totaling more than $79,000 to the two teachers still involved in the lawsuit and is considering an award of attorneys' fees as well.
Defense attorney Taylor said Jefferson County is asking the 6th Circuit to strike down Phillips' ruling, not solely to spare the system, still financially hurting, the price tag for the legal battle but also to keep open to other school systems the option of using cheaper organizations, despite religious affiliation, to take over educational functions such as alternative schools.
(Reach Knoxville News Sentinel staff writer Jamie Satterfield at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)