Supreme Court turns down challenge to Minnesota school operation

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to a Minnesota school district’s operation of a rural school rented from a religious sect and attended only by children of the sect’s members.
The justices, without comment, rejected arguments that the arrangement violates the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
“We’re delighted. It’s been three years of litigation and we’re glad it’s over,” said Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the school district. “It was a major nuisance to the administration.”
Located in southwestern Minnesota, Independent School District No. 640 operates public schools in an agricultural area that includes the towns of Vesta and Wabasso.
The district closed down a Vesta elementary school and sold the building in 1984, and children from Vesta then attended the Wabasso elementary school about 14 miles away.
Lloyd Paskewitz bought the old Vesta school building in 1991, and the next year offered to rent it to the school district.
Paskewitz is a member of the Brethren, a Christian sect that seeks to avoid the use of technology such as televisions, radios and computers. About one-third of Vesta’s residents are Brethren members, according to court documents.
The rental proposal, contained in a letter to the school district superintendent, requested that the Vesta school be multi-age and not contain technological equipment. Paskewitz said about 20 Brethren children would be interested in attending the school.
The district’s school board unanimously approved renting the Vesta school. Members cited savings in transportation costs, space efficiency and avoiding the loss of state aid if Brethren families opted for home-schooling.
School district taxpayers Matthew Stark and Marcia Neely sued, seeking to block operation of the Vesta school and contending that it would amount to state-sponsored advancement of religion.
A federal judge agreed with them and ordered the school district not to open the school. But a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling by a 2-1 vote and said the school district could operate the school.
“The district here decided, for secular reasons, to open a public school … open to all students regardless of religious affiliation,” the appeals court said. It noted that the school district routinely grants parental requests for curricular exemptions “regardless of religious affiliation” and that no non-Brethren child had been prevented from attending the school.
“It wasn’t the best use of the public’s tax dollars,” Kaardal said. “If there is a silver lining, this has produced an 8th Circuit opinion that is binding on the other seven states in the 8th Circuit.”
The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, which had been active in the case, did not immediately return a message left Monday on the answering machine at its Minneapolis office.