Freedom from Religion Foundation v. New Kensington Arnold School District, Dkt. No. 15-3083 (3rd Cir. August 9, 2016).
Facts: The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state, a student, and the student’s parent, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Pennsylvania violated the Establishment Clause by maintaining a monument of the Ten Commandments at its public high school. According to the suit, in 1956, the New Kensington Fraternal Order of the Eagles, a non-profit charitable organization, donated a six-foot granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments, to be placed on the grounds of Valley High School in New Kensington. The organization donated more than 140 such monuments nationwide. The monument was located near the entrance to the high school’s gym and accessible via two footpaths. The mother alleged that she and her child came in contact with the monument when they went to the school for a karate event, while picking up the child from a program at the school, and while dropping off the mother’s sister whose child attends the high school. The suit was initially dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to assert damages claims and that claims for injunctive relief were moot. The plaintiffs appealed.
Ruling: The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the dismissal and ruled that the parent had standing to sue for nominal damages and the claims for injunctive relief were not moot. According to the appeals court, to establish standing, the parent had to show “direct, unwelcome contact with the allegedly offending object or event, regardless of whether the contact is frequent or she does not alter her behavior to avoid it.” The court held that the parent’s allegations that the monument signaled that she was an “outsider” because she does not follow the particular religion the monument endorses and that her “stomach turned” when she encountered it, was sufficient to demonstrate that her contact with the monument was unwelcome. Thus, she had standing to pursue a nominal damages claim. The child, however, did not have standing because she testified that she never read it or paid attention to it and never told anyone it bothered her. The court also ruled that the parent could seek injunctive relief to require the school to remove the monument because her child planned to attend school there. The court reasoned that the parent “has an interest in guiding her child’s religious upbringing and has standing to challenge actions that seek to ‘establish a religious preference affecting’ her child.” The appeals court returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.