This case arose under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs consisted of a group of parents of public school children who objected to various religious materials contained in their children’s reading curriculum that offended their religious beliefs. The parents claimed that by forcing their children to be exposed to these materials in the curriculum, the school system had violated their rights to the free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee entered an injunction that required the schools to excuse objecting students from participating in reading classes where the textbooks were used and awarded the parents monetary damages.
The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the district court, finding that mere exposure of materials found to be objectionable to the religious beliefs of students and their parents did not amount to a violation of the free exercise clause by placing a burden on the students’ and parents’ rights of free exercise of religion. In reaching its conclusion, the court of appeals relied primarily on three cases.
The Sixth Circuit distinguished Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), on the basis that in Sherbert the objecting party’s rights to free exercise were burdened when the government required an employee to work on the party’s Sabbath day or forfeit benefits. The Sixth Circuit observed that the government had denied the employee a benefit, whereas in Hawkins, the only burden was a threat of exposure to offensive materials.
The Sixth Circuit also distinguished Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), where the state of Maryland had denied a public office to a person because of the person’s refusal to declare a belief in God. The Court stated that in this case, the students had not been required or compelled to profess or deny any religious belief. The Court found that the students had not been coerced into doing an act forbidden by their religion or to affirm or disavow a belief prohibited by their religion.
In Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), a group of Amish students objected to being compelled to attend school in violation of their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court found that the requirement to attend school presented a real threat of undermining the Amish community and religious practices. The Court found that the students would abandon their belief or be forced to migrate to some other, more tolerant region. The Sixth Circuit distinguished Yoder by noting the narrowness of the decision and the particular set of facts presented. Additionally, the Sixth Circuit found that in Yoder, the students had no other options, but the students in this case were provided two options to accommodate their beliefs.
The Sixth Circuit concluded that when students are not required to affirm or deny a belief or engage or refrain from engaging in a practice forbidden by their religion, no unconstitutional burden on the right to free exercise can be established. This holding has been interpreted and extended to various settings to allow public schools almost unlimited authority to decide subjects taught there and to limit parental intrusion on that authority. Furthermore, Hawkins has been the basis for numerous court decisions upholding legislation affecting religious institutions as not violating the establishment clause.
DAVID M. CARR
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited