A federal appeals court ruled that state employees violated the fourth amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures when they searched a church school’s property.

Church Law and Tax 2004-03-01


Key point. The fourth amendment prohibition of unreasonable governmental searches and seizures applies to churches and church schools.

* A federal appeals court ruled that state employees violated the fourth amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures when they searched a church school’s property and seized an 11-year-old boy who was a suspected victim of child abuse, but the caseworkers could not be personally liable because of “governmental immunity.” Several weeks after learning that administrators of a church-operated elementary school used corporal punishment as a form of discipline, caseworkers for a state child welfare agency initiated an investigation for child abuse. Over the objection of the school’s principal, and without a warrant or parental notification or consent, the caseworkers removed an 11-year-old boy (“Mark”) from his fourth-grade classroom and interviewed him about corporal punishment that he and other students may have received and certain family matters. Thereafter, the caseworkers unsuccessfully attempted to interview Mark’s parents and sister, and threatened to remove the children from their parents’ custody. The caseworkers also attempted, on a separate occasion, to interview other students at the school, whom Mark had identified as having been spanked, but the principal at the school flatly refused to grant them access to the children without a court order or parental consent. The state eventually ended its investigation due to lack of information, and the school and parents (the “plaintiffs”) filed suit against three caseworkers alleging that the manner in which they handled the investigation violated their constitutional rights. The caseworkers asked a court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that as government employees they were entitled to immunity from liability. A federal district court dismissed the case and the plaintiffs appealed.

A federal appeals court ruled that some of the caseworkers’ actions were unconstitutional, but it agreed with the district court that the caseworkers were entitled to immunity from the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. The court concluded that the caseworkers violated the fourth amendment guaranty against unreasonable searches and seizures by searching the school’s premises and seizing Mark. The court noted that warrantless searches and seizures on private property are “presumptively unreasonable.” It observed, “When parents place minor children in private schools for their education, the teachers and administrators of those schools stand in loco parentis over the children entrusted to them. In our view, there is no basis for concluding that when a minor child is entrusted to the care of a private school in loco parentis his reasonable expectation of privacy, vis-á-vis government officials, differs in any material respect from that which he would otherwise expect to receive at home. In both cases, the child is in an enclosed structure that is not open to the general public, and is cared for and looked after by individuals with parental authority.” Further, “when, as in this case, the government conducts a warrantless search of a religious or parochial school, or seizes a minor child on the premises of such a school without a warrant, these actions implicate the constitutional rights of the school, child, and parents under the free exercise clause of the first amendment.”

The court concluded, “While the caseworkers are undoubtedly correct in asserting that private schools are subject to reasonable regulation by the state, and that states have a compelling interest in protecting children from child abuse, the critical question in this case is not whether the public interest justifies the type of search or seizure in question, but whether the authority to search or seize should be evidenced by a warrant.”

The court then addressed the issue of governmental immunity. It noted that “under the doctrine of qualified immunity, government officials are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” The court concluded that the caseworkers were not knowingly violating clearly established constitutional rights by their warrantless search of the school property and seizure of Mark, because they were acting pursuant to a state law giving caseworkers the right to interview a child suspected of abuse “at any location” (other than the child’s home) “without permission from the child’s parent, guardian or legal custodian if necessary to determine if the child is in need of protection of services.”

The court acknowledged that child welfare caseworkers are often called upon to make difficult decisions “without the benefit of extended deliberation.” And, “there is, perhaps, no more worthy object of the public’s concern than preventing the most vulnerable members of society, children of tender years, from being physically abused.” However, this unquestionably compelling state interest “may not be used as a pretense for arbitrary governmental intrusion into the private affairs of its citizens. Indeed, in many cases, parents send their children to private schools because they fundamentally disagree with the manner in which the government chooses to operate its public school system. Furthermore, some parents enroll their children in religious or parochial schools so that they will be educated in an environment that reinforces certain religious beliefs and values. These are important constitutional interests (i.e., right to familial relations and free exercise of religion) that should not be interfered with by government officials unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.” However, the court once again concluded that the caseworkers were entitled to immunity for their actions.

Application. This case provides a compelling demonstration of the application of the fourth amendment to church schools. However, it also demonstrates that government employees who violate the fourth amendment by searching a church school’s property, or seizing a student, may not be liable for their actions because of the principle of governmental immunity. Doe v. Heck, 327 F.3d 492 (7th Cir. 2003).

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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