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Ruling Curbs Private School Teacher Hiring by Religion


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court let stand a ruling Monday that limits the power of religiously oriented private schools and colleges to exclude teachers who do not practice their faith.

Under the action, which is binding in the Western states, schools that are not controlled by a church or particular denomination cannot discriminate against employees because of their religion.

Without comment or dissent, the justices refused to hear an appeal of a lower-court decision that ruled unconstitutional the practice of a century-old Hawaiian school whose founder decreed that its teachers "shall forever be persons of the Protestant religion."

In 1989, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused the school of illegal discrimination for refusing to hire a teacher who was not Protestant.

While a trial judge sided with the school, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March ruled for the EEOC. It agreed that "primarily religious" schools--those tied to or run by a particular faith--are exempt from federal job-discrimination laws concerning religion. But it concluded that the Hawaii school did not qualify for this exemption because it was not run by a church or affiliated with a particular denomination.

Its 3,000 students began the day with a prayer and its courses included some religious instruction. But most of its curriculum was secular, and "we construe the statutory exemptions narrowly," the appeals court said.

While the high court's refusal to hear the case (Kamehameha Schools vs. EEOC, 93-171), does not set a binding national precedent, the 9th Circuit's opinion now is law in Hawaii, California and seven other Western states.

Religious rights advocates said that they were dismayed by the high court's action and predicted that hundreds of religiously oriented small colleges and schools will be pressured to change their hiring standards.

"This strips away an invaluable legal protection from virtually every nondenominational religious school," said Steven T. McFarland, an attorney for the Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "The government should not be in the business of telling religious schools how they can fill their jobs."

He filed a brief on behalf of the Christian Legal Society, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Christian College Coalition and the University of Notre Dame urging the high court to adopt a hands-off policy toward religiously oriented schools.

In opposition, Clinton Administration attorneys said the appeals court had properly concluded that the Hawaiian school was "primarily secular, not primarily religious."

In other action, the court said that it would consider whether federal courts can intervene when states fail to give a prisoner a speedy trial under the terms of an interstate compact.

An Indiana prisoner, Orrin Reed, asked the federal courts to throw out his conviction for defrauding an insurance company because state prosecutors did not try him within 120 days. But the U.S. appeals court in Chicago ruled that it did not have the authority to intervene.

The case (Reed vs. Clark, 93-5418) will be heard next year.

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