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Bechtold, Bickham, & Singh

William Allan Kritsonis, PhD


Professor

School District’s Authority in Academic Matters

School District’s Authority in Academic Matters

INTRODUCTION

Public school districts often find themselves in the middle of controversy when
issues of religion arise. Certain segments of the population will protest if there is even a
mention of religion or religious themes in a school. Others push to "put God back into the
schools" and bring back school prayer. There is not a consensus on the meaning of the
U.S. Constitution’s two clauses regarding church and state, both contained in the First
Amendment: The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

School districts and other public entities must walk that fine line between
violating the Establishment Clause, by endorsing a particular religion or favoring religion
in general, and violating the Free Exercise Clause by unreasonably inhibiting a person’s
ability to practice his or her religious beliefs. In early 1998, the Buffalo Independent
School District, an East Texas school district with around 800 students, became
embroiled in a dispute which would soon become a federal lawsuit. This report will look
at school district’s authority for placement and acceptance of credits from non-accredited
religious institutions.

CASE ONE
Federal District Court
Western District of Texas, Waco Division

Sarah HUBBARD, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants


v.
BUFFALO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellee

LITIGANTS

Plaintiffs-Appellants: Sarah Hubbard, et. al


Defendant-Appellee: BUFFALO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

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BACKGROUND

In February of 1998, parents John and Linda Hubbard petitioned the school board
of Buffalo I.S.D. (B.I.S.D.) to consider awarding academic credit for work completed in a
private, non-accredited school by their daughter, Sarah. The Hubbards had earlier
consulted with a Florida law firm associated with the Christian Law Association, an
advocacy group. Sarah Hubbard had attended B.I.S.D. from kindergarten through the
seventh grade. She then transferred to the Upper Room Christian Academy, a non-
accredited private school run by the Upper Room Church in Buffalo.

The Upper Room Christian Academy does not require its teachers to be certified
or have college degrees, and has a very different system of instruction and assessment
than that used by B.I.S.D. After three and one-half years at the Upper Room Christian
Academy, Sarah transferred to Buffalo High School in B.I.S.D., and she and her parents
learned that, pursuant to B.I.S.D. policy, Sarah would be required to take proficiency
tests to receive credit for courses completed at the non-accredited school. Had Sarah
transferred from an accredited public or private school, her credits would have been
accepted without any requirement of testing or other validation.

A case such as this could only arise with a high school student, since credit
toward graduation is not generally awarded before the ninth grade. Students transferring
from non-accredited schools below the ninth grade may be tested to determine placement,
but credit would not be an issue.

The parents appealed the Superintendent’s decision denying Sarah credits to the
Board, and the Board passed a motion instructing the Superintendent to work with the
parents to form a plan which would allow Sarah to receive the maximum number of
credits under B.I.S.D. policy. The Board did not waive the testing requirement to validate
the coursework Sarah completed at a non-accredited institution.

Suit was filed by Sarah Hubbard and her parents, John and Linda Hubbard, in
federal district court for the Western District of Texas, Waco Division. The Honorable
Walter S. Smith, Jr. presided over the case. In its opinion, the court clearly stated the
central issue:

"The issue is this: When a student transfers into a Texas public school from a non-
accredited private school, can the student be required to pass a test thereby proving
proficiency as to each course for which the student desires credit?"

FACTS

After a temporary restraining order was granted ex parte, the court scheduled a
hearing on the application for a temporary injunction, which was to be combined with a
hearing on the merits. The parties agreed to postpone a full hearing on the merits until
August, and to allow Sarah to be treated as if she were a member of the junior class. The

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Plaintiffs came to the hearing with no less than five attorneys, three affiliated with the
Christian Law Association from Florida, and two local attorneys.

The court issued a scheduling order with unusually short timelines so the case
could be adjudicated before Sarah’s senior year was to begin. The parties filed cross-
motions for summary judgment, and the court allowed oral argument on the motions.
After the arguments, the court advised the parties that the trial would not be necessary
since the court was convinced that the matter could be dealt with by summary judgment.

The plaintiffs pled nine causes of action: (1) violation of the Free Exercise
Clause; (2) violation of the Establishment Clause; (3) denial of Equal Protection under
the U.S. Constitution; (4) denial of Equal Protection under the Texas Constitution; (5)
denial of procedural Due Process; (6) violation of parents’ right to direct the upbringing
of a child;(7) violation of right to freedom of association (8) B.I.S.D. policy is void due to
vagueness and over breath (9) violation of state law, with regard to award of credit and
testing.

The case was presented as an instance of religious discrimination and a violation


of the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of religion, but the facts did not bear these claims
out. The B.I.S.D. policy regarding transfer of credit applied equally to religious and
nonreligious schools. Texas has a system of accreditation for private schools, and many
religious schools are so accredited. Further, the three plaintiffs testified that they had no
religious objections to the testing, that no religious practice or belief would prohibit Sarah
from taking the tests, and that the B.I.S.D. policy does not violate their religious beliefs.
Transfer of academic credits is governed by 19 T.A.C. § 74.26, and allows the system
employed by B.I.S.D.

DECISION

The court granted B.I.S.D.’s motion for summary judgment as to all of plaintiffs’
claims and concluded that the policy did not burden the free exercise of religion. The
court further found that the plaintiffs were not members of a suspect class for equal
protection analysis, and that the policy was rationally related to a legitimate educational
interest. Upon application, the court also awarded costs to B.I.S.D. The case was not
appealed.

DICTA

"That parents have the primary right and obligation to control the education and
upbringing of their children cannot be argued; but that right must have limits —
otherwise a truant’s parent could plausibly proclaim that he or she was exercising his or
her rights while "home-schooling" a child to be a safe-cracker or a prostitute."

The ruling affirmed that the courts will be very reluctant to interfere with school
operations in the areas of educational policy and academic decision making. The decision

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can be cited as Hubbard v. Buffalo Independent School District, 20 F.Supp.2d 1012


(W.D.Tex. 1998).

IMPLICATIONS

The Texas Senate has passed a bill which is modeled after the federal Religious
Freedom Restoration Act, which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme
Court in City of Boerne v. Flores, 117 S.Ct. 2157. Senate Bill 138 would prohibit school
districts and other political subdivisions from interfering with the free exercise of religion
without showing a compelling interest. If this bill becomes law, it could tip the scales in
favor of those wishing to be exempt from school rules or policies. The legislation could
affect the authority of school districts with regard to dress codes, student discipline,
absences, curriculum, employment practices and an array of other areas.

This legislation, which is supported by the Governor, could be read to require


schools to allow home schooled children to participate in certain school programs, such
as extracurricular activities, or specialized classes. Currently, Texas public schools
generally do not allow partial enrollment or extracurricular participation by students
enrolled in private or home schools.

It is unclear what impact the proposed Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act
would have had on the Hubbard v. Buffalo I.S.D. litigation, but the proposed act is sure to
invite litigation on several fronts. The presence of statewide and national advocacy
groups which are willing to fund lawsuits to advance their social or political agendas will
continue to be a source of litigation for school districts. The boundary of church-state
interaction is continually being redefined by the courts, and the only thing we can count
on is continued controversy and change.