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C.H. v. OLIVA

December 30, 1997

C.H. as guardian ad litem of Z.H., a minor, and C.H. individually, Plaintiffs,
v.
GRACE OLIVA, GAIL PRATT, PATRICK JOHNSON, MEDFORD TOWNSHIP BOARD OF EDUCATION, LEO F. KLAGHOLTZ, COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION, THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: RODRIGUEZ

 RODRIGUEZ, District Judge

 This matter is before the court on motions of (1) defendants Medford Township Board of Education, Grace Oliva, Gail Pratt, and Patrick Johnson (the "Medford defendants"), and (2) defendants State of New Jersey Department of Education and Leo Klagholz, Commissioner of the State of New Jersey Department of Education (the "State defendants"), for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(c). The court, having considered the submissions of the parties, and for the reasons set forth below, grants the motions and dismisses the complaint. *fn1"

 BACKGROUND

 The basic facts are not in dispute. Prior to February 23, 1996, Z.H. was a student at Haines Elementary School, which is one of defendant Medford Township Board of Education's public schools. While Z.H. was in kindergarten in 1994, students in his class were asked to make posters depicting things for which they were thankful. Z.H.'s poster professed his thanks for "Jesus." All the posters were then placed on display in the school hallway. Apparently, while the regular classroom teacher was absent, some unknown person removed Z.H.'s poster due to its religious theme. Upon the classroom teacher's return, the poster was returned to display, albeit in a less prominent location than it had previously occupied.

 A similar incident occurred in February 1996 while Z.H. attended defendant Grace Oliva's first grade class at Haines Elementary. Ms. Oliva maintained a policy in her class which rewarded students reaching a certain level of reading proficiency by allowing them to read a book of their own choosing to the rest of the class. *fn2" On February 9, 1996, Z.H. chose to read a story called "A Big Family," an adaptation of chapters 29-33 of the Book of Genesis, from a book entitled "The Beginner's Bible." *fn3" See Genesis 29:1-33:20. However, because of its religious content, Ms. Oliva did not allow Z.H. to read the story to the class. Instead, although the other students were allowed to read their non-religious stories to the class, he was only allowed to read the story to Ms. Oliva.

 After C.H., Z.H.'s mother, was notified that the story was inappropriate, she made both informal and formal demands of the various Medford defendants that Z.H. be allowed to read the story to the entire class. *fn4" These demands were not satisfied. Accordingly, on June 5, 1996, plaintiffs instituted the present action, alleging, in a two count complaint, that (1) the actions of the Medford defendants willfully and intentionally violated Z.H.'s rights to Freedom of Expression under the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and (2) the State defendants, by failing to either exercise their supervisory powers or implement a policy to allow for expression of religious beliefs in the classroom, aided in this violation. The complaint seeks both monetary and injunctive relief. The State and Medford defendants answered the complaint, and on April 9, 1997 and April 10, 1997 respectively, moved for judgment on the pleadings, *fn5" raising several independent reasons why the complaint, in its entirety, should be dismissed. These motions are presently before the court.

 DISCUSSION

 A. Standard for Judgment on the Pleadings

 Motions for judgment on the pleadings under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(c) are treated similar to motions to dismiss filed pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6) -- judgment will not be entered unless the moving party establishes that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Society Hill Civic Associationn v. Harris, 632 F.2d 1045, 1054 (3d Cir. 1980) (citing WRIGHT & MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 1368 at 690 (1969)). In considering the motion, the court must "view the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Id.

 B. Threshold Issues

 Prior to reaching the merits of plaintiffs' claims, the State defendants offer several bases for dismissal of the complaint, the majority of which were not addressed by plaintiffs in opposition. Nonetheless, each will be considered in turn.

 1. Eleventh Amendment Immunity to Suit

 First, the State defendants argue that the Eleventh Amendment bars plaintiffs' claims against them. That Amendment reads:

 
The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

 U.S. CONST. amend. XI. This Amendment has consistently been interpreted to prohibit federal courts from hearing suits brought by citizens against their own state. Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98, 104 S. Ct. 900, 906-07, 79 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1984) (citing Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 10 S. Ct. 504, 33 L. Ed. 842 (1890)). Although a party seeking to recover money damages from the state treasury is precluded from obtaining federal jurisdiction over a state without its consent to suit, *fn6" Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 94 S. Ct. 1347, 39 L. Ed. 2d 662 (1974), the amendment's bar does not apply when a plaintiff is seeking prospective injunctive relief from state officials violating federal law. *fn7" Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S. Ct. 441, 52 L. Ed. 714 (1908); Pennhurst, 465 U.S. at 102-03, 104 S. Ct. at 909.

 Here, plaintiffs' only claim against the State defendants is contained in Count Two of the complaint which seeks prospective injunctive relief. *fn8" No claim for monetary damages is made against either the Department of Education or Commissioner Klagholz for the alleged failure to exercise supervisory powers and enact policies which would protect the constitutional rights of children such as Z.H. However, although N.J. STAT. ANN. § 52:4A-1 acts as a waiver of sovereign immunity for constitutional violations in state court, *fn9" it does not constitute consent to suit in the federal courts. Kennecott Copper Corp. v. State Tax Commission, 327 U.S. 573, 66 S. Ct. 745, 90 L. Ed. 862 (1946). Therefore, although the Eleventh Amendment does not bar plaintiffs' action against Commissioner Klagholz, it does bar the claims against the State Department of Education.

 2. Political Question Doctrine and Separation of Powers

 The State defendants claim that the plaintiffs' lawsuit comprises a nonjusticiable political question and implicates the separation of powers doctrine. They argue that only the United States Department of Education and the executive branch of government have the authority to grant the plaintiffs the relief they request. Therefore, any federal judicial intervention in matters that have been traditionally relegated to the executive branch and state and local authorities would be improper.

 To the extent the defendants argue that the federal courts cannot compel the state to adopt general educational policies, they are correct. However, when the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, their claim for relief can be construed as a demand for the State defendants to cease their wrongful behavior and adhere to constitutional principles. *fn10" This certainly goes beyond a simple request to adopt basic policies. In this light, the plaintiff's claim falls within this court's jurisdiction. The Third Circuit, commenting on the scope of the political question doctrine, has stated that "while it is not the role of the courts to disturb policy decisions of the political branches, the question of whether an agency has acted in accordance with a statute is appropriate for judicial review." ...


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