Victory: Federal Court Rejects Establishment Clause Challenge


Laura Hernandez

June 11, 2015

Today, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit unanimously held that a Tennessee Public School District did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when it contracted with a Christian school for its "alternative school."  Faced with a severe budgetary shortfall, the Jefferson County School Board was forced to close its alternative school, a program mandated under Tennessee law for all 7th through twelfth graders with learning or other disabilities.  In an effort to preserve alternative school educational services, however, the school district signed a contract with the Kingswood School, a nonprofit Christian entity, licensed by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. The agreement with Kingswood saved the school district $170,000 a year, and provided educational services that would otherwise have been unavailable to the school district's students.

Kingswood employed state-licensed teachers for the alternative school and excluded all religious instruction from the curriculum and from free counseling services provided to the students. Nevertheless, religious images in the school's chapel (where no school assemblies were ever held) and scripture verses on some Kingswood documents provoked two disgruntled teachers to sue the school district. The teachers claimed that the school district's agreement with the Kingswood school violated the Establishment Clause.

The ACLJ filed an amicus brief arguing that the teachers' claims were meritless because the Supreme Court of the United States has held in several cases that providing government  funded educational services on religious school premises does not violate the Establishment Clause.  Our brief also pointed out that a decision for the teachers would require attributing the private speech of Kingswood to the School Board, and would ignore the overriding fact that the School Board had contracted with Kingswood solely for economic reasons.

The Sixth Circuit agreed, ruling that 

it is clear that the taxpayers, School Board, parents, and students all benefited from the relationship between the Board and Kingswood. 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. The mere status of Kingswood as a religious organization does not itself give rise to endorsement. The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.

The court gets it exactly right.  This is a tremendous victory.  We will continue fighting to ensure that the Constitution is not misconstrued and that religious liberty is protected.