Law & Courts

The Supreme Court and Education: Key Rulings That Impact Schools

By Mark Walsh — June 30, 2022 4 min read
Paul D. Clement at the lectern for the petitioner.
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In a term that included cases on some of society’s most divisive issues, the U.S. Supreme Court issued important decisions affecting public education before wrapping up business June 30. Those decisions involved religion and free speech rights, as well as censure of school board members, the scope of remedies available under federal civil rights laws that cover schools, and landmark decisions on gun and abortion rights that will be felt in the nation’s schools.

In addition, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a champion of student rights in many cases but a voice for administrators in others, announced in January his intent to retire at the end of the term and stepped down after the court’s last opinions. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female member of the court, was sworn in to succeed him when his retirement became effective on the term’s last day.

Here’s a recap of six key decisions that matter to schools and educators:

Religious expression of school employees

The court ruled 6-3 in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a high school football coach’s post-game prayers at midfield were protected by the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses. The court said the Constitution neither requires nor permits school districts to suppress such religious expression by employees. The decision leaves open some important questions about the scope of the free-exercise rights of school employees and whether students will have greater protection for their own religious expression in public schools.

State aid to religious schools

The justices decided 6-3 in Carson v. Makin that the state of Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a state tuition program for towns without public high schools violated the free-exercise clause. The decision has the most significant impact for states such as Maine and Vermont that have sought to exclude religious schools from their distinctive tuition aid programs. The dissent expressed fears that it could lead to state aid for religious-themed charter schools.

Censure of school board members

The court ruled unanimously in Houston Community College System v. Wilson that an education board’s censure of one of its members over his speech did not violate the First Amendment. Although the case involved a community college board, the issue of censure has arisen more recently for K-12 school boards, often on members’ comments on hot-button issues such as COVID policy or LGBTQ rights. The court said that elected members of government bodies are expected to shoulder criticism from the public and their peers, and they may respond to such criticism with speech of their own. The court said it was not ruling on certain concrete sanctions involved in the case, nor was it holding that verbal censures or reprimands could never give rise to a First Amendment claim.

Emotional-distress claims under federal civil rights laws

The justices ruled 6-3 in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller PLLC that damages for emotional distress are not available under key federal civil rights statutes that bar discrimination based on race, sex, and disability, including in K-12 schools. Such claims for emotional distress have been brought against schools under the race-discrimination prohibition of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the bar on sex-bias under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The court said those statutes act as a contract between the federal government and federal funding recipients, and those recipients would not expect emotional distress to be a remedy available under such a contract.

Second Amendment gun rights

The court ruled 6-3 in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen that the Second Amendment encompasses a right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense, a decision that raised concerns among educators and gun-control groups that arose out of mass shootings at schools and elsewhere. The decision did not disturb earlier rulings that declared schools to be among the “sensitive places” where the government may presumably prohibit guns. But the decision did not further define sensitive places.

Abortion rights

The justices ruled 5-4 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overrule the court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade establishing a federal constitutional right to abortion. (The decision was 6-3 to uphold a restrictive Mississippi abortion law.) The decision raises issues for educators and students regarding employee benefits and adolescent health, as well as widespread concerns about implications for the court’s precedents guaranteeing access to contraception and rights to same-sex intimacy and marriage. Meanwhile, the opinions in the case included considerable debate over the majority’s citation of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark 1954 ruling on school segregation, in support of its decision to overrule the 49-year-old Roe precedent.

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