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Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Seven, No. 11-1448

Decided: June 28, 2012

Plaintiffs, the parents of two students and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that one of the School District’s policies, which allows student to receive two academic credits for off-campus religious instruction, violates the First Amendment. The defendant brought a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were not injured by the policy, and that the policy is constitutional in that it is neutrally stated and administered and has a secular purpose of accommodating students’ desire to receive religious instruction. Plaintiffs filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, asserting an Establishment Clause violation in that the purpose and primary effect of the policy is to promote Christianity. The District Court found that the plaintiffs did have standing, but rejected the plaintiffs’ argument on the merits and granted summary judgment to the defendant. The Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

On appeal, the Court first addressed the issue of standing. The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ proposal that it adopt a per se rule that students and parents always have standing to bring suit against policies at their school when a violation of the Establishment Clause has been alleged; however, the Court did recognize that standing principles must be “tailored to reflect the kind of injuries Establishment Clause plaintiffs are likely to suffer,” which oftentimes will not be tangible or economic. The Court addressed the standing of the plaintiffs individually and found that Ellen Tillett, her child, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation lacked standing, while Robert and Melissa Moss had standing to bring the action.

The Appellate Court then addressed the alleged Establishment Clause violation. The plaintiffs with standing, the Mosses, argued that while off-campus released time initiatives, like the program allowed by Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952), are generally constitutional, this particular program is not because it provides academic credit. The Court was not persuaded by this argument. Noting that public schools have broad, but not unlimited, discretion to release students from their secular lessons so as to accommodate their desires to engage in religious instruction, the Court found that the off-campus release program satisfies all three prongs of the well-established Lemon test. Furthermore, the Court stated that the fact that the school accepts credits for the off-campus courses does nothing to alter the analysis under any of the three prongs of the Lemon test.

The Court was also unconvinced by the plaintiffs’ argument that the School District had become entangled with a local bible school. The Court found that the District officials maintained a neutral relationship with the bible school, neither encouraging nor discouraging student’s participation in the bible school’s courses.

In summary, the Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s judgment, finding the School District’s released time program, which it adopted pursuant to the Released Time Credit Act and administered in a religiously neutral manner, neither violates the Establishment Clause nor entangles the School District in religion, but rather “accommodates religion without establishing it, in accordance with the First Amendment.”

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore