IFAS | Freedom Writer | April/May/June 1990 | purdy.html

Last dance in Purdy

On April 16, 1990, the Supreme Court let stand a southwest Missouri town's ban on school dances, even though the ban was based on religious beliefs. The maneuver, in effect, allows public schools to enact and enforce rules which satisfy the religious view s of a community's majority. In 1986, Purdy High School officials considered modifying the century-old ban on dancing. A group of local fundamentalist and Pentecostal ministers in the town of Purdy (pop. 928) led a fight to force the school board to maintain the ban. The ministers ma intained that social dancing is sinful and leads to various kinds of immorality. Twenty-one students and parents filed a suit against the school board. They charged that the ban amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

In 1988, federal district judge Russell G. Clark agreed, and ruled in favor of the students and parents. The school board appealed. Meanwhile the students held their first and last dance.

Then, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals 8th Circuit in St. Louis overturned Judge Clark's decision. The appeals court said that regardless of the motivation behind the ban, dancing is a "secular" activity and that its prohibition could be d efended as an appropriately "neutral" policy. The group appealed again, and the full 8th Circuit voted 5 to 4 against rehearing the case. The dissenting judges declared that "this is a case about religious tyranny."

The student group brought their case, Clayton v. Place, to the Supreme Court. The students argued that the U.S. Court of Appeals failed to give proper consideration to the religious motivation behind the ban on dancing. They complained that "public school boards may endorse and promote the religious beliefs of a locally dominant religious sect as official school policy, so long as the school policy is 'facially neutral'." The students felt that the appeals court analysis would even permit school bo ards to ban the teaching of evolution because it is in itself a "secular" activity.

The school board argued that to strike down the ban on dancing on church/state grounds would call into question other school rules, like dress codes and swearing, which are based on "traditional morality."

In the decision which now stands, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that if school board members use their powers to adopt or keep rules that are written in a religiously neutral language, it makes no difference, constitutionally, that the board members act ually voted for such rules because they also believed dancing is a sin. The court concluded, "We simply do not believe elected government officials are required to check at the door whatever religious background [or lack of it] they carry with them before they act."

Sources: Associated Press, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.