Schools – Part 1

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments Schools Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA •

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments


A federal appeals court ruled that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom did not exempt a fundamentalist Christian school from state approval. The Massachusetts compulsory attendance law requires children to attend schools (public or private) that have been “approved” by the state. Private schools are approved if their educational program is comparable (in thoroughness and efficiency) to public education. A Baptist church claimed that it was a sin to “submit” its private school to secular authority for approval, and accordingly that the law subjecting the school to state approval violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. Specifically, the church’s religion taught that “God is the sovereign and the final authority in all human conduct [and that] to submit [the church’s] educational ministry for the prior or continued approval of secular authorities would violate the sovereignty of Christ over his church and would, therefore, be a sin.” To help resolve the controversy, the church proposed that its students voluntarily take standardized tests to assure the competency of the school’s educational program, and the test results be shared with the state. A federal trial court agreed with the church, and found that requiring state “approval” of the school violated the church’s constitutional rights. The state of Massachusetts appealed, and a federal appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and ruled in favor of the state. The court conceded that the state’s “approval” requirement violated the sincerely-held religious beliefs of the church. However, it concluded that the state law was supported by a “compelling” governmental interest that outweighed the church’s religious convictions. It observed that “it is settled beyond dispute that the state has a compelling interest in insuring that all its citizens are being adequately educated.” The court cited with approval an earlier pronouncement of the United States Supreme Court: “A substantial body of case law has confirmed the power of the states to insist that attendance at private schools, if it is to satisfy state compulsory-attendance laws, be at institutions which provide minimum hours of instruction, employ teachers of specified training, and cover prescribed subjects of instruction …. If the state must satisfy its interest in secular education through the instrument of private schools, it has a proper interest in the manner in which those schools perform their secular educational function.” Finally, the court rejected the church’s claim that the state’s interest in competent education could be satisfied through voluntary standardized testing. It noted that “tests, at best, reveal what has occurred.” Further, can the state be certain that “good results reflect good teaching … rather than simply teaching the answers to questions the teachers believe will appear on tests?” The court acknowledged that some states allow mandatory standardized testing to monitor the quality of private education (it cited Alaska, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia). However, the court could find no state that uses voluntary testing to insure the adequacy of private education. New Life Baptist Church Academy v. East Longmeadow, 885 F.2d 940 (1st Cir. 1989).

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