It is clear that governmental compulsion either to do or refrain from doing an act one's religion forbids or requires or to affirm or disavow a belief one's religion forbids or requires, is the evil prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Plaintiffs, a group of public school students and their parents, brought an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, against defendants, a board of education, individual members of the board, and the Commissioner of Education of the State of Tennessee. Plaintiffs claimed that the required use of certain reading textbooks violated their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The district court's judgment granted injunctive relief, which ordered defendants to excuse objecting plaintiff students from participating in reading classes where the textbooks were used, and damages in favor of plaintiffs. Defendants sought review. On appeal, the court reversed the judgment and remanded. The court held that plaintiffs' right to free exercise of their religion had not been violated by defendants because plaintiffs had not shown that the reading textbooks had a coercive effect that operated against the practice of their religion.
Does a governmental requirement that a person be exposed to ideas he or she finds objectionable on religious grounds, constitute a burden on the free exercise of that person's religion as forbidden by the First Amendment?
In this case the district court erroneously applied decisions based on governmental requirements that objecting parties make some affirmation or take some action that offends their religious beliefs. In Sherbert the burden on the plaintiff's right of free exercise consisted of a governmental requirement that she either work on her Sabbath Day or forfeit her right to benefits. Similarly, in Thomas the plaintiff was denied a benefit for refusing to engage in the production of armaments. In each case the burden on the plaintiff's free exercise of religion consisted of being required to perform an act which violated the plaintiffs' religious convictions or forego benefits. Ms. Sherbert was not merely exposed to the view that others in the work force had no religious scruples against working on Saturdays and Mr. Thomas was not merely exposed to government publications designed to encourage employees to produce armaments. In each case there was compulsion to do an act that violated the plaintiffs' religious convictions. In Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida, 480 U.S. 136, 107 S. Ct. 1046, 94 L. Ed. 2d 190 (1987), the Supreme Court reaffirmed its holdings in Sherbert and Thomas, emphasizing that in both cases there was compulsion either to do an act that was prohibited by the plaintiff's religion or to modify his or her behavior and violate religious beliefs. In Spence this court upheld a conscientious objector's right not to be required to participate in his high school's ROTC program. The court found that Spence's claim resembled Sherbert's "since it compels the conscientious objector either to engage in military training contrary to his religious beliefs, or to give up his public education." 465 F.2d at 799. It is clear that it was being compelled to engage in military training, not being exposed to the fact that others do so, that was found to be an unconstitutional burden.
Since the Court found none of the prohibited forms of governmental compulsion in this case, we conclude that the plaintiffs failed to establish the existence of an unconstitutional burden. Having determined that no burden was shown, the Court does not reach the issue of the defendants' compelling interest in requiring a uniform reading series or the question, raised by the defendant, of whether awarding damages violated the Establishment Clause.