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Appeals Court Upholds District's Use of Religious School for Alternative Ed.

A federal appeals court has upheld a Tennessee school district's former use of a private Christian school as its alternative education provider for students with disciplinary problems.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, held that the public school students were served in a day program that offered secular instruction and only minimal exposure to religion, and thus the arrangement was not an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

The case involves the Jefferson County, Tenn., school district, which in 2003 eliminated its own alternative school because of budget concerns and contracted with the Kingswood School in Bean Station, Tenn., for such services through 2010.

Kingswood features a residential program for troubled and abused children that includes Christian religious instruction. But its day program, which the public school students were enrolled in, was largely secular. The students were exposed to some religious imagery at the school, court papers say, and their report cards and other communications with parents contained a few Biblical references. 

The school district's decision to use the private school was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the two teachers who lost their jobs when the district's own alternative school was closed. 

A federal district judge in Knoxville, Tenn., ruled for the teachers in 2013, holding that the school district had violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion. 

But in its June 11 ruling in Smith v. Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners, the 6th Circuit court overturned the district court. 

"Here, a reasonable observer would not interpret the school board's relationship with Kingswood as a governmental endorsement of religion," the appeals court said. "Parents and students, for example, encountered only de minimis religious references in Kingswood's day program. The evidence indicates that students in the day program were not exposed to any religious instruction, prayer, or any mentions of religion at all."

The outcome was unanimous, though one judge filed a concurrence expressing slightly different reasoning than the majority opinion.

Meanwhile, the Jefferson County district stopped sending its students to Kingswood at the end of the 2009-10 school year after the district used federal funds and grants to establish a new, "model" alternative school of its own, the opinion notes.

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