Last year, I blogged about the impact of a higher education Supreme Court diversity case, Fisher v. University of Texas on K-12 schools. As discussed in that blog, although the decision was a higher education decision, it raised important takeaways for primary and secondary schools wishing to use race as a factor in admission or assignment decisions. As also reported in that blog, the Court remanded the decision to the lower appellate court, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, to decide whether the University could establish that its consideration of race in the case was narrowly tailored. Specifically, the Supreme Court directed the University to show that it adequately considered race-neutral alternatives before deciding to consider race in admissions. The Court also directed the Fifth Circuit to apply “exacting scrutiny” to the decision and not to defer too heavily to the University about the necessity of relying on race.
As Jennifer Smith from our firm reported late last week in an FR Alert, the Fifth Circuit recently ruled on the remanded case, and found that the University properly used race as a factor in a “holistic review” in the admissions process. As Jennifer explained:
The Court of Appeals explained that “[t]he sad truth is that the Top Ten Percent Plan gains diversity from a fundamental weakness in the Texas secondary education system. The de facto segregation of schools in Texas enables the Top Ten Percent Plan to increase minorities in the mix, while ignoring contributions to diversity beyond race.” For those limited seats not filled by the Top Ten Percent Plan, the University uses race as one factor in a holistic review aimed at selecting students missed by the Top Ten Percent Plan, such as those with special talents or experiences, including the experience of being a minority that attended an “integrated school with better educational resources.”
The case does not constitute a major change in the law in this area, and the takeaways from our previous blog remain relevant for K-12 school leaders. Specifically, race can still be used as a factor in admissions or assignment decisions, although only where great pains are taken to establish the necessity of such use. Legal counsel for the student in the case have vowed to appeal, though, and it is uncertain if the Supreme Court would agree with the Fifth Circuit if it took the case on for review. As always, school leaders should consult with legal counsel and take care when using race in any admissions or assignment decisions in light of the flurry of legal activity in this area in the courts.
The Supreme Court decided this week not to hear a recent case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) regarding public school graduation ceremonies in churches. As Franczek Radelet reported when the decision was handed down in 2012, the Seventh Circuit held that a Wisconsin school district violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by holding a graduation ceremony in a church with pervasively religious symbols. The Seventh Circuit found that such action could lead to the perception that the school endorsed the Christian religion. As we explained, the court stated:
Regardless of the purpose of school administrators in choosing the location, the sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state.” The majority reasoned that a reasonable observer could “conclude that the District would only choose such a proselytizing environment aimed at spreading religious faith – despite the presence of children, the importance of the graduation ceremony, and, most importantly, the existence of other suitable graduation sites – if the District approved of the Church’s message.”
After last week’s decision allowing prayer before town meetings (which we covered in an FR Alert), one might have expected the Supreme Court to take up (and even reverse) the Seventh Circuit’s decision. But the Court declined to even hear the appeal.
In a relatively uncommon step, Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented from the Court’s denial of review in the case. Scalia compared the complaints of non-Christian parents about holding graduation ceremonies in churches to his own dislike for the public playing of “rock music and Stravinsky,” and expressed his belief that based on prior Supreme Court precedent, such an aversion “cannot be imposed by law because of the First Amendment.” In other words, according to Scalia and Thomas the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not even apply to, let alone prohibit, holding graduation ceremonies in churches. Scalia argued that because the Seventh Circuit’s decision was en banc (before all the judges of the Seventh Circuit), prompted three powerful dissents, conflicted with decisions that have long allowed graduation ceremonies to take place in churches, and conflicted with decisions upholding other public uses of religious spaces, Supreme Court review should have been granted.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case means the Seventh Circuit’s decision remains good law, and binding law for school districts in its jurisdiction. Notably, the decision does not hold that a graduation ceremony may never be held in a church or other religious building. Rather, the decision cautions against such proceedings being held in a location with the “sheer religiosity” of the church in question in the case. As our previous summary explained:
[T]he church . . . had a 15-20 foot tall cross at the front of the sanctuary, as well as Bibles and hymnals in the pews and religious literature in the lobby, including signs and pamphlets targeted at children. Some years, church members staffed the information booths and/or distributed religious literature.”
The reality of the decision, however, is that it is legally risky to hold a graduation ceremony in any church, and so caution is warranted by schools considering doing so. At the very least, review of the question by legal counsel is imperative.
The U. S. Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had established a federal definition of marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. The Court’s 5-4 vote in U.S. v. Windsor will reach well beyond the case of Edith Windsor, a New York widow, who was sent a $363,000 estate tax bill by the Internal Revenue Service after her wife died in 2009. The Windsor decision means that same-sex couples who are legally married now must be treated the same under federal law as married opposite-sex couples. What does that mean for school districts? My colleagues, Jeff Nowak and Veronica Silva, provide their take on this decision’s impact on employers, including public schools, in a recent FR Alert.