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Court to Decide if Job Bias Laws Apply to Church Schools

November 13, 1985|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, entering a sex-discrimination dispute between a fundamentalist Christian school and an expectant teacher it dismissed so she would stay home with her baby, agreed Tuesday to consider whether states may enforce job bias laws against church-affiliated educational institutions.

The justices will review an action by Ohio authorities against a Dayton school that had refused to employ the teacher because church doctrine called for mothers to be in the home with young children.

Religious Freedom Issue

A federal appeals court ruled last June that such intervention by a state agency empowered to conduct sweeping investigations and to order reinstatement and back pay would infringe on the school's religious freedom.

In past decisions, the justices have upheld some governmental actions against religious institutions--such as denial of tax exemptions to schools that discriminate because of race. But this could be the first time that the court decides whether the states may enforce discrimination laws against a religious-affiliated employer whose policies are based on religious beliefs.

The case involves Linda Hoskinson, a married elementary school teacher at Dayton Christian Schools. In 1979, she informed school administrators that she was pregnant but wanted to continue teaching.

Hoskinson was told in a letter from the school that she would not be rehired for the next term because it would be "in contrast" with school philosophy. "As a school, we see the importance of the mother in the home during the early years of child growth," the letter said.

Dismissal Letter Rescinded

The teacher then consulted an attorney. The school, in turn, rescinded the first letter and told her she was being fired for failing to follow the "Biblical Chain of Command," a church doctrine requiring members to settle internal disputes among themselves.

Hoskinson filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which then asked the school to turn over its data on the teacher, along with other employment and personnel records. The commission ruled that there was "probable cause" to believe that the school had violated state discrimination laws--and the school went to federal court seeking to bar the state from intervening in its affairs.

A U.S. district judge ruled against the school, but a federal appeals court in Cincinnati reversed the decision, saying that the state's intervention would be "particularly onerous" to the rights of parents who enrolled their children in the school so they would be educated according to their religious tenets.

Ohio authorities, appealing to the Supreme Court (Ohio Civil Rights Commission vs. Dayton Christian Schools, 85-488), said that the appellate ruling would give religious employers "constitutional license" to violate job bias laws in the name of religion.

The justices will hear oral arguments later this term.

Michigan Ruling Stands

In other action, the court:

--Over two dissents, let stand a Michigan court ruling forbidding the use of incriminating statements made by a suspect after a police officer asked "What happened?" to a group of persons gathered around the body of a gunshot victim. At first, the group had been silent--but, when the officer added that they would have to stay until police obtained their statements, the suspect declared: "I'll save everybody a lot of trouble; I'm the one that did it."

It was not until later that police officers read the suspect his "Miranda warning"--informing him of his right to silence and to counsel. His initial statements were admitted at trial and he was convicted of second-degree murder. But the Michigan Court of Appeals subsequently overturned the conviction, ruling that any statements made before the warning were inadmissible.

State officials appealed the ruling to the justices, saying it was unfair to ask policemen to issue warnings to everyone at the scene of a crime. But only Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Byron R. White voted to hear the case--two votes shy of the number needed to grant review in the case (Michigan vs. Blackburn, 85-100).

--Agreed to decide whether the constitutional guarantee against self-incrimination protects statements made to psychiatrists by individuals facing civil commitment as "sexually dangerous" persons. The case involves an Illinois man who was committed to an institution for an indefinite period after authorities had dropped a criminal charge of sexual assault against him.

Commitment Upheld

An Illinois appellate court barred the commitment, saying that statements he made during mandatory interviews with psychiatrists should not have been used against him. But the state Supreme Court ruled in the case (Allen vs. Illinois, 85-5404) that the privilege did not apply because the commitment was for treatment--not punishment.

--Announced that it would hear appeals by the Reagan Administration and a group of 50 black employees contending that the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service is illegally paying some black workers less than whites in jobs requiring the same education and experience (U.S. vs. Friday, 85-428; Bazemore vs. Friday, 85-93).

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