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Jock v. Ransom

June 28, 2007

CODY MICHAEL JOCK, TANNER RILEY JOCK, JAKE TYLER JOCK, MICHAEL L. JOCK AND COLLEEN FARWELL AS PARENTS AND LEGAL GUARDIANS OF CODY MICHAEL JOCK, TANNER RILEY JOCK AND JAKE TYLER JOCK, LAYLA WHITE, AND CHARLES WHITE AS PARENT AND LEGAL GUARDIAN OF LAYLA WHIRTE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JAMES RANSOM, KATHLEEN LAUZON, EMILY LAUZON, BEN KELLY, STACEY ADAMS, DARLENE BROCKWAY, ROBERT DURANT, MARION ELLIOT, JUDITH STARK, CORRINA BERO INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MEMBERS OF THE SALMON RIVER CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, THE SALMON RIVER CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, THE SALMON RIVER CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, GLENN R. BELLINGER, SUPERINTENDENT OF THE SALMON RIVER CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, IN HIS OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, IRVING PAPINEAU, PRINCIPAL OF ST. REGIS MOHAWK SCHOOL, JOHN SIMMONS, PRINCIPAL OF SALMON RIVER CENTRAL SCHOOLS, AND JOHN AND JANE DOES 1-10, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. McAVOY Senior United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

Plaintiffs commenced the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that Defendants violated their right to the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution when they prohibited the recitation of the OHEN:TON KARIHWATEHKWEN (hereinafter "Thanksgiving Address" or "Address") over the school's public address system. Presently before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment seeking a declaration that the Thanksgiving Address is not a religious prayer, Defendants' cross-motion to dismiss the claims, and Defendants' motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the Complaint in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs are students, and/or the parents of students, enrolled in the Salmon River School District (the "School District"). Defendants include the School District; the School District's Board of Education; Glenn Bellinger, the School District's superintendent; Irving Papineau, principal of the St. Regis Mohawk School; John Simmons, principal of the Salmon River Central School District; and the individual members of the Salmon River Central School District Board of Education.

The Thanksgiving Address embodies Mohawk tradition, history, and culture. The Address is spoken at the openings and closings of all Mohawk gatherings, including political, ceremonial and sporting events, as an acknowledgment of Mohawk existence, culture, and way of life. While there is no single, uniform recitation of the Address, the abridged version of the Address prepared by the School District acknowledged, in the following general order: People, Mother Earth, Plants, Fruits, Grasses, Water, Fish, Medicine, Animals, Trees, Birds, Grandfather Thunders, Four Winds, Elder Brother Sun, Grandmother Moon, Stars, Four Beings, and Creator.*fn1 The Address was recited over the school's public address system on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons and during school events for a period of approximately 2 to 2 1/2 years.

In the fall of 2004, Kathleen Lauzon, a non-Mohawk, complained to Defendant Bellinger that the Address could be a prayer. As a follow up to Lauzon's complaint, Bellinger sought the opinion of school's attorneys. In an April 12, 2005 letter to Bellinger, the attorneys concluded that "a court would probably determine that the recitation of the Thanksgiving Address over the school's PA system (in school, at the pep rally and lacrosse games) is impermissible under the Federal Constitution." Def's Ex. B. The attorneys further stated that "a student-initiated, pre-school recitation of the Thanksgiving Address in a location where students may choose to gather and participate, or not to do so, would protect the First Amendment free speech rights of those students who wish to engage in the Thanksgiving Address, while at the same time protecting the First Amendment rights of those who do not wish to participate." Id. Thereafter, in April or May 2005, Bellinger made the decision to relocate the Address from the public address system to the school's auditorium. The Address also was no longer recited at pep rallies or lacrosse games.

The decision to remove the Address from the public address system and to discontinue reciting it at the pep rally and lacrosse games forms the basis of Plaintiffs' claim brought under the Equal Protection Clause. Plaintiffs make no claims under the First Amendment.

II. DISCUSSION

a. Standard of Review*fn2

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures governs motions for summary judgment. It is well settled that on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, see Tenenbaum v. Williams, 193 F.3d 581, 593 (2d Cir. 1999), and may grant summary judgment only where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56( c). An issue is genuine if the relevant evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of the record that the moving party believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact as to a dispositive issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant is able to establish a prima facie basis for summary judgment, the burden of production shifts to the party opposing summary judgment who must produce evidence establishing the existence of a factual dispute that a reasonable jury could resolve in his favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon "mere allegations or denials" asserted in his pleadings, Rexnord Holdings, Inc. V. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525-26 (2d Cir. 1994), or on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation. Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105, 114 (2d Cir. 1998). With this standard in mind, the Court will address Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

b. Equal Protection

"To state a claim for an equal protection violation, [Plaintiffs] must allege that a government actor intentionally discriminated against them on the basis of race, national origin or gender." Hayden v. County of Nassau, 180 F.3d 42, 48 (2d Cir. 1999). Thus, to succeed, it is incumbent upon Plaintiffs to "prove purposeful discrimination . . . directed at an identifiable or suspect class," Giano v. Senkowski, 54 F.3d 1050, 1057 (2d Cir. 1995), in the decision to remove the Address from the public address system and to discontinue reciting it at the pep rally and lacrosse games. "Discriminatory purpose . . . implies more than intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences. It implies that the decisionmaker . . . selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part because of, not merely in spite of, its adverse effects upon an identifiable group." Personnel Adm'r of Mass. v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 279 (1979). Factors that may tend to show unlawful discriminatory intent include: (1) a clear pattern unexplainable on grounds other than race; (2) the historical background of the decisions at issue; (3) departures from normal routine by the policymakers; and (4) the administrative history of the action. Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 266-68 (1977).

Most of Plaintiffs' submissions, both in support of their motion for partial summary judgment and in opposition to Defendants' two motions, focus on whether the Address is a prayer. The resolution of that complex issue is not necessary to the disposition of this case. Accordingly, the Court declines to opine whether the Address is a prayer.*fn3 Instead, the Court will focus on the merits of Plaintiffs' equal protection claim. The question is whether Plaintiffs have proffered sufficient evidence upon which a fair-minded trier of fact could reasonably conclude ...


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