5

My school's community service policy (while ambiguous throughout the whole thing) Seems to me to discriminate against not only religions, but my religion specifically. The particular clause I'm referring to states:

Your community service project must benefit a group, organization, or person outside of your household, immediate and extended family. Eagle Scout, Church-related or court-ordered community service hours may not be used for this Project.

(Emphasis not mine)

The particular portion of this clause, the last part; "Eagle Scout, Church-related or court-ordered community service hours may not be used for this Project." is what I'm at ends with. The project makes a specific statement to disallow all service associated with "Churches", in the same clause it refuses to accept projects being used for other purposes.

And to add confusion to the mess, the phrase, IMHO is unnecessarily ambiguous, stating "Church-Related" instead of being specific as to what is and isn't allowed. I've asked my guidance counselors as to what is and isn't allowed in terms of this, and they said to ask my PE teacher, as they (as per stated) are in charge of the Volunteer Community Service Project (VCSP). My PE teacher told me they can clarify questions during a pre-approval phase for the project. As I understand it, that phase goes like this:

  • The student signs up for service or alerts the organization and receives permission to perform it.
  • The student goes to their PE teacher and asks if the project can be used for the VCSP
  • The student can ask questions about the VCSP (For some reason, only if they've already prepared a project)
  • The PE teacher either approves or denies the project, citing a reason if denied.

This whole process makes no sense to me and seems completely illogical, so I figured that before I schedule any more projects that I find out if there are cases of similar organizations to my school losing similar cases to this.

Some Details

  • The school is a public school, Located in Rhode Island (United States)
  • The Project is required to graduate
  • To my knowledge, the school has never had problems with policies before
  • I am a minor
  • why is it illogical that you can't just re-purpose something you would have done anyway for your family or to earn an award, but must instead do something you otherwise do not gain from? – Kate Gregory Apr 3 '17 at 17:07
  • @KateGregory That's not what the policy says. It doesn't say you can't use "Projects that have already been used for a church", it says you can't use "Church-related" projects, ruling out even projects that were not used to receive a benefit from the church, but any project that is affiliated with a church. – Travis Apr 3 '17 at 17:09
  • 4
    I think the point is that they want you to come up with your own community service project, not use one that's being used for something else, OR was thought up/planned by someone else. That knocks out church-sponsored mission trips, fundraisers, etc. It could also be a church-state separation issue. Perhaps see how open they are to volunteering at a different church or religious institution if you really want a religious-related project. – mkennedy Apr 3 '17 at 20:59
  • 4
    I would hesitate to dissect text like that where it was apparently thrown together carelessly and without official review. Since this applies to a graduation requirement I would first seek (via written request or formal grievance) an authoritative, written clarification or explanation of the requirement from the school's principal, or from the school district's superintendent, board, or solicitor. (And based on my experience, the restriction would disappear at some point in that formal review process.) – feetwet May 23 '17 at 19:23
  • @feetwet I'm in the process of that, but my school is rather large and slow, so getting through to someone who can review official documents takes a particularly long time. – Travis May 24 '17 at 12:11
3
+100

Freedom of Religion Concerns

I doubt that this policy would be held to be unlawful on First Amendment freedom of religion grounds. Indeed, such requirements usually exclude church-related service.

Also, I don't see how this policy discriminates against your religion specifically. It seems on its face to apply to all religions equally.

Even if "Church-related" is read broadly to include both service that benefits a church, and also service that is organized by a church, that doesn't preclude you from coming up with some other kind of service that is neither of these things.

Why would you be prevented from coming up with service that is neither of these things when other students do not?

Unless you have also undertaken Holy Orders or something, in which case 100% of your time away from school would be devoted to your church, it is hard to see what the problem would be with this requirement for you as opposed to someone else. And, it would probably be improper for a public school to allow you to use religious activities to satisfy a graduation requirement - that would sound like an establishment clause violation.

Some of the relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases are:

Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)

This pair of cases shaped the modern understanding of how the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment constrains prayer in public schools. In Engel, the Court struck down a New York State rule that allowed public schools to hold a short, nondenominational prayer at the beginning of the school day. The Court decided that these prayers amounted to an “official stamp of approval” upon one particular kind of prayer and religious service, and said that, since teachers are agents of the federal government, the scheme violated the Establishment Clause.

The reasoning in Engel was also applied in Schempp, in which the Court struck down a Pennsylvania policy that required all students to read 10 Bible verses and say the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each day. While a student could get an exemption with a parent’s note, the Warren Court decided that this still amounted to an unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular religious tradition.

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)

This case adjudicated a different sort of Establishment Clause challenge, where the controversy dealt with a statute providing financial support for teacher salaries and textbooks in parochial schools. The Burger Court unanimously decided that this financial aid scheme violated the Establishment Clause and delineated the governing precedent for Establishment Clause cases known as the Lemon test. Under Lemon, statutes (1) must have a secular legislative purpose; (2) must have primary effects that neither inhibit nor advance religion; and (3) cannot foster an “excessive government entanglement with religion.” The Court held that this scheme violated the third prong of the Lemon test.

Allowing Church-related community service projects could implicate both the second and third prongs of the Lemon test.

In a pertinent ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a state constitutional requirement that no public funds be used to assist religious organizations, even if this prevented a facially neutral voucher program from treating religious and non-religious schools equally. The opinion in this 2015 case reviews some of the relevant law.

A critical portion of the analysis is that aid to religious institutions must be limited to institutions that do not discriminate on the basis of religion and that supporting religious institutions at the K-12 level is more of a concern than doing so at the higher educational level. A Church, however, would (and should) discriminate on the basis of religion.

In General

There has been consideration of whether community service requirements, in general, are constitutional. Generally, courts have upheld the programs. See also here.

In particular, Rhode Island is in the 1st Circuit of the federal courts, which has expressly ruled that community service requirements are constitutional.

A 1999 law review article in the Duke Law Journal considers the issue from several perspectives. So does a 1997 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review article. A 1916 case called Butler v. Perry is a particularly strong precedent in favor of the proposition that mandatory service is constitutional, despite arguments to the contrary under the 13th Amendment. The issue was discussed in the New York Times in a 2003 article.

Both are concerned about the involuntary servitude aspect of the requirement, but given that school attendance may be mandatory, and a community service requirement is one, relatively unconstrained aspect of mandatory educational activity, this isn't a very easy case to make.

  • 1
    Specifically excluding church activities while otherwise allowing other activities would implicate the 2nd prong, maybe the 3rd. Moreover, discouraging religion surely cannot be a valid secular purpose. I don't know what to make of the Eagle Scout exclusion. The 1st not only prohibits favoring or disfavoring a specific religion, it also prohibits favoring or disfavoring religion in general. – user6726 May 27 '17 at 2:04
  • 1
    @user6726 The Eagle Scout exclusion is probably aimed at double counting, not religion. And, I think the fact pattern here is quite similar to Lemon. A claim of discrimination against all religion is stronger than a claim of discrimination against a particular religion which is what Travis claims but I can't see here. But, a recent ruling on Colorado's voucher law prohibiting use of vouchers for religious schools in state constitution and upholding it against 1st Amendment challenge would seem to argue against the discrimination against religion generally argument. – ohwilleke May 27 '17 at 2:08
  • I based my "all religion" point on the policy quote, not the OPs conclusion about what the policy meant, since there's no indication that only some religions are discriminated against. I'll look at the Colorado voucher issue. – user6726 May 27 '17 at 5:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.