Trenton, NJ (Dec. 22)
The seven member State Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that a ban on extra-curricular activities by a public school board on Jewish and Christian Sabbaths, to accommodate the religious needs of students, was not an unconstitutional accommodation of religion.
The court affirmed, without opinion, an earlier ruling of a three-judge panel of the State Appellate Division which had upheld as constitutional such a ban by a Teaneck high school. The Teaneck Board of Education adopted on March 9, 1977 a policy which banned scheduling of extra-curricular student activities on Friday nights, Saturdays or Sunday mornings.
The board said the intent of the policy was to eliminate discriminatory practices in its public schools, among which it included the denial of opportunity to Sabbath-observing students to participate in extra-curricular activities on those days.
The policy, described as unprecedented in the United States by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), was challenged in November, 1978 by the Playcrafters, a Teaneck high school drama class, when they learned that their play “Don’t Drink the Water,” could not be performed, as originally scheduled on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings during the fall semester of the 1978-79 school year.
BACKGROUND OF THE RULING
The Playcrafters, represented by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in New Jersey Superior court, the lowest state court, charging that since the school board had acted on the basis of the religious practices of some of its students, it had impermissibly entangled itself with religion in violation of both the federal and state constitutions.
The Superior court ruled in March, 1979, in favor of the Playcrafters. That ruling was reversed last January by the Appellate Court, which ruled that “the First Amendment does not mandate hostility or callous indifference to religious practices. To do so would be to prefer those who do not believe in religion over those who do.”
The Appellate Court also called the school board policy “an effort by the board to enable its students to participate as fully as possible in extra-curricular scholastic activities without infringing on the religious liberties of those students” and ruled that “per-missable accommodations to religion can take the form of avoiding conflicts between secular and religious activities.”
COLPA and the American Jewish Congress had filed a friend of the court brief in support of the constitutionality of the school board’s disputed policy.
ISSUE IN THE CASE
The Jewish agencies stressed that the issue in the case was not whether the school board was required to reschedule school activities to avoid conflicts with religious practices of some school students but rather when such rescheduling was permissible to afford equal opportunity to all students.
They also contended that if the First Amendment was deemed to prohibit the action of the Teaneck school board, it would be tantamount to implying that the church-state separation doctrine requires hostility to religion.
The brief was filed by Daniel Chazin, a COLPA attorney, Martin Cowan, COLPA secretary, and Marc Stern, American Jewish Congress staff counsel. Attorneys for the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU indicated they planned to carry the case to the United States Supreme Court.