Student says failing grade in health class violated his religious liberties

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

An eighth-grader and his father have accused a Connecticut public school district of subverting the family’s religious liberties by punishing the student for refusing to take part in health class on moral grounds.

Represented by the socially conservative American Center for Law and Justice, Corky Leebaert and his father, Turk, sued the Fairfield Board of Education and the superintendent of schools in federal court on Oct. 25, claiming religious-liberty violations. Last spring, Corky failed his seventh-grade health course because he refused to attend the class, which included discussions of human sexuality and AIDS.

Corky received the failing grade despite requests from Turk to allow Corky to opt out of the class. Turk had sent a letter to the principal at Roger Ludlow Middle School, claiming that under state law Corky must be permitted to opt out of the health class.

Last May, Superintendent Carol A. Harrington responded by supporting the school’s decision not to allow Corky to opt out. Although state law allows parents to remove their children from instruction on AIDS, Thomas Murphy, a state Department of Education spokesman, told the Connecticut Post that the law does not permit parents to exempt their kids from entire health courses.

In its six-page complaint, the American Center for Law and Justice claims that the school officials’ actions toward Corky had “placed a burden on Plaintiffs’ exercise of religion” protected by the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Connecticut Constitution.

“What the school system has done in this instance [is that it] has said it will be parent when it comes to teaching the student about the issues of family life,” Vincent McCarthy, senior ACLJ counsel, said in a prepared statement. “That assertion is not only wrong, we believe it is unconstitutional.”

According to guidelines for religious expression in the public schools issued by the Clinton administration, schools “enjoy substantial discretion to excuse individual students from lessons that are objectionable to the student or the students’ parents on religious or other conscientious grounds.” The guidelines, which were created by an array of academics, lawyers and religious-liberty groups, including the First Amendment Center, also state that “students generally do not have a federal right to be excused from lessons that may be inconsistent with their religious beliefs or practices.”

The ACLJ’s suit seeks a court declaration that the school district’s actions violated Corky’s religious-liberty rights, an order to withdraw the failing grade from his transcripts, and an injunction against the school district from failing other students who opt out of the health class for religious reasons.