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6th Circuit: Tenn. school district can contract with Christian academy to run non-religious program

ADF submitted friend-of-the-court brief in support of Jefferson County School Board
Published On: 10/18/2017

Attorney sound bite:  Jeremy Tedesco

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled Thursday that the Jefferson County School Board can contract with a Christian academy to operate a non-religious alternative program for suspended or expelled students. The district made the move to save more than $171,000 per year so that it could reinvest the taxpayer money into its essential services to keep them afloat.


Although all parties to the lawsuit agreed that the board’s decision did not have a religious purpose, a federal district court nonetheless determined that the board’s decision was unconstitutional. The 6th Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court’s decision. ADF filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in support of the school district in October 2013.

“Students should not be penalized because a few people fail to understand what the First Amendment actually requires,” said ADF Legal Counsel Rory Gray. “The Jefferson County School Board is committed to helping children in need and providing the best educational services. As the 6th Circuit found, the school district is not guilty of a constitutional violation just because the organization that provided a much-needed, non-religious program for at-risk youth happened to be run by Christians. The Constitution does not require government entities to shun all contact or cooperation with religious organizations.”

In November 2003, two teachers filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners over the cooperation with Kingswood Academy, a private school that offered a non-religious, alternative day program for public school students that is separate from its private, religious program for other students. In July 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee found in favor of the teachers, who claimed that the arrangement violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

In its opinion in Smith v. Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners, the 6th Circuit wrote that “in the present case, a non-governmental-entity – Kingswood – was responsible for the few religious references that were conveyed to observers. Those references occurred because Kingswood already operated, in some aspects, as a Christian school. But the purpose of the arrangement with Kingswood was purely academic, and the religious references merely incidental.”

“The school board made a wise and constitutional decision both for the taxpayers and the youth who needed Kingswood’s program,” added ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “The 6th Circuit’s decision allows the board to continue working with groups like Kingswood Academy for the benefit of the entire community.”


  • Pronunciation guide: Tedesco (Tuh-DESS’-koh)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.



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