A southern Idaho school district violated the religious freedom of a school principal by demoting him for planning to remove his children from the district and teach them at home, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
In a 2-1 ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s $300,000 damage award to former elementary school principal Frank Peterson and also awarded him attorneys’ fees from the district.
The court said Peterson’s choice of home-schooling for his eight children attending public schools was religiously motivated and also protected by his constitutional right to choose his children’s education.
The court rejected the district’s argument that the reaction of teachers, who felt insulted by Peterson’s decision, justified his demotion.
Peterson was principal for 15 years at Paul Elementary School in the rural Minidoka County School District in southeastern Idaho. He and his wife, Priscilla, had 12 children, of whom eight were of public school age and none attended his school. The Petersons are Mormons.
After he told a district administrator in January 1992 that he was thinking of home-schooling, the district delayed his annual rehiring decision. The teachers association told the superintendent that faculty members felt betrayed, and about 25 critical phone calls were received from parents.
Superintendent Michael Bishop met with Peterson, who said he wanted his children educated “with an aspect of God being the creator in all of the classes.”
Bishop was also concerned that home-schooling would cut into Peterson’s work time and that the Petersons had not submitted their proposed curriculum, the court said.
In May 1992, the district said Peterson was being reassigned to a schoolteacher’s job for the next school year. Teachers made about $2,000 less than principals but had more time off, said Steven Tolman, a lawyer for the district.
Peterson rejected the demotion, was unable to find a job in three other school districts, then worked briefly as a truck driver and started a short-lived trucking business, the court said.
After U.S. District Judge Harold Ryan ruled that the district had violated the Petersons’ rights, a jury awarded them $200,000 for economic losses and $100,000 in non-economic damages, including emotional distress.
The two judges forming the appellate majority issued separate opinions. Judge John Noonan said criticism of Peterson by “uninformed and prejudiced persons” could not out-weigh his right to practice his religion.
While Peterson did not argue that Mormonism required home-schooling, his “claim is based on his personal sense of what his religion requires,” Noonan said. He said the district could have satisfied its concern over Peterson’s workload when it exercised its authority to approve his home-school curriculum.
Todd Wilcox, a lawyer for the Petersons, declined comment, saying he had not seen the ruling.
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