Religious schools periodically decide to expel a student for misconduct in the middle of a school year or to not re-enroll a student for the next school year. Parents and students sometimes respond with the threat of a lawsuit if the student is expelled. Religious schools facing this scenario should realize that they have much greater authority to expel a student than a public school, and, therefore, any such claim can be defeated.
First, the free exercise of religion provisions of the United States and Oregon Constitutions allow religious schools to make these decisions free of court interference if they are based at least in part on religious doctrine.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thus, in Oregon, “civil courts can no longer inquire into questions of church doctrine.” Decker v. Berean Baptist Church, 51 Oregon Court of Appeals 191, 197 (1981). In such cases, “the First Amendment bars the relief sought by plaintiff.” Tubra v. Cooke, 233 Oregon Court of Appeals 339, 349 n. 4 (2010).
Second, religious schools should use student and parent handbooks to codify the right of a private school to expel or otherwise discipline its students as it sees fit.
For example, in 2013, John Kaempf defended a religious school in Oregon that was sued by a student and his parents after it decided not to re-enroll the student following the completion of his first year at the school due to repeated behavioral problems. The student handbook provided that the school had the “sole discretion” to determine appropriate consequences for inappropriate behavior, and that re-enrollment at the school is contingent on a student meeting the school’s rules and standards. In Oregon, when a contract states that one party has “sole discretion” over an issue, that issue is solely for that party to decide and is not subject to review in court. Tigard Water District v. City of Lake Oswego, 31 Oregon Court of Appeals 71, 77 (1977).
Based on these provisions of the student handbook, as well as the student’s claimed damages being speculative (he contended that he could no longer be admitted to an elite college), an Oregon state court judge dismissed the lawsuit against the religious school. See also Hutcheson v. Grace Lutheran School, 517 NYS2d 760, 761-762 (NY App 1987) (“private schools are afforded broad discretion in conducting their programs, including decisions involving the discipline, suspension and expulsion of their students,” and when “a private school expels a student based on facts within its knowledge that justify the exercise of discretion, then a court may not review this decision and substitute its own judgment”).
Therefore, based on their constitutional rights, as well as the provisions of student and parent handbooks, religious schools in Oregon have a strong basis to defeat any challenge in court to their right to expel or otherwise discipline their students.