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Brown v. Woodland Joint Unified School District (1994)

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Background Information

Douglas E. Brown and Katherine E. Brown, parents of two students and members of the Christian Assembly of God denomination, objected to the use of portions of Impressions, a teaching aid, in the first through sixth grades in the Woodland Joint Unified School District

Impressions is a series of 59 books containing approximately 10,000 literary selections and classroom activities. Selections are associated with suggested learning activities, such as having children compose rhymes and chants, act out the selections, and even discussions the selections' characters and themes. The selections were chosen to reflect a broad range of North American cultures and traditions.

The parents challenged 32 of the Impressions selections, arguing that these portions promoted the practice of witchcraft. Most of these selections asked children to discuss witches or to create poetic chants. Some also asked students to pretend that they are witches or sorcerers and ask them to role-play these characters in certain situations.

After their complaints, the School District appointed a review committee, which included a Christian minister, to review Impressions for any emphasis on witchcraft or the occult. The committee decided that it did not have evidence or expertise to establish a connection between Impressions and occult practices. The School District accepted this report and refused to exclude the 32 disputed selections.

Court Decision

The question before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was: do the classroom activities in a California public school district require children to practice the "religion" of witchcraft in violation of the federal Establishment Clause and the California Constitution?

The Browns argued that the selections violated the second prong of the Lemon Test, which prohibits any government activity which has the primary effect of advancing or hindering religion - whether intentional or not, and even if those effects are secondary effects of government acts. According to the Browns, that is what happened when children read about witchcraft and are asked to act out scenes from such stories.

The 9th Circuit Court rejected this argument, citing both its own and Supreme Court precedent, both of which state that merely reading about religious history is not a prohibited religious activity. Although the children were also engaged in activities rather than merely reading, the Court also held that a practice's mere consistency with or coincidental resemblance to a religious practice does not have the primary effect of advancing religion. Citing the Supreme Court's decision in McGowan v. Maryland:

...the "Establishment" clause does not ban federal or state regulation of conduct whose reason or effect merely happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions. In many instances, the Congress or state legislatures conclude that the general welfare of society, wholly apart from any religious considerations, demands such regulation. Thus, for temporal purposes, murder is illegal. And the fact that this agrees with the dictates of the Judaeo-Christian religions while it may disagree with others does not invalidate the regulation. So too with questions of adultery and polygamy. The same result could be said of theft, fraud, etc., because those offenses were also proscribed in the Decalogue.

The Court also held that, because of the nature of the overall program, a neutral observer would be unlikely to conclude that the selections are endorsing religion.

The fact that the challenged selections constitute only a minute part of the Impressions curriculum was found to further ensure that an objective observer in the position of an elementary school student would not view them as religious rituals endorsing witchcraft.

Significance

This Circuit Court decision reinforced the established precedent that mere similarity to actual religious beliefs or observances is insufficient to declare something unconstitutional.

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