Public charter schools sign ‘morality clause’ with Catholic church

Charter schools sign 'morality clause'

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A network of Memphis charter schools is facing questions and a potential lawsuit over an agreement with the Catholic Dioceses of Memphis.

Compass Community Schools is leasing six campuses from the Catholic Diocese of Memphis for just $1.

But the leases contain a "morality clause" that experts say could lead to legal trouble, and at least one group has already threatened to bring a challenge.

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators obtained copies of each school's lease.

The section considered to be the morality clause -- the restricted uses clause -- says the schools cannot "directly advocate, promote, teach or support a position considered gravely immoral by the Roman Catholic Church at the premises as determined by the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis."

"There seems to be some serious constitutional issues involved here," said Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis constitutional law professor. "It seems to be a potential separation of church and state problem."

Since the charter schools receive public funding, he says they could be headed for legal trouble.

"You're not suppose to change the content of what public school teaching is in order to conform with a particular religious denomination's beliefs," said Mulroy. "Any student and one of those schools or the parents of any of the students at any one of those schools would have standing to challenge it under the first Amendment."

The charter schools chairman, Dr. John Smarrelli, who is also president of Christian Brothers University, released a statement in response to the concerns over the leases.

"We sincerely care about the questions raised regarding our lease, and our leadership team is currently engaged in dialogue about this matter," said Smarrelli. "We remain laser-focused on our mission for Compass Community Schools, which is rooted in developing the whole child through academic excellence, values-based character education and service learning in the community. As a network of public charter schools, we will operate in direct alignment with the standards set by the Tennessee Department of Education, and that includes an objective, academic model for teaching our students. We are committed to serving our students, families and communities with integrity, zeal and dedication."

A national group, the Center for Inquiry, which is based in New York, sent a letter to Tennessee state officials, including the attorney general, governor and education commissioner, expressing concern about the morality clause.

The group also threatened legal action if the schools aren't released from the lease.

"We will be watching this closely to ensure that Tennessee public schools do not violate the Constitution,

and we will not hesitate to bring legal action to protect the rights of Tennessee students and their parents to a secular public education," the letter reads.

Father Robert Marshall, acting on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis released a brief statement, confirming the leases were signed.

"We can confirm that leases were signed covering the six properties. The terms of the leases were mutually agreeable to the parties," said Marshall.

The University of Memphis ran into a similar issue with the diocese while trying to negotiate the use of St. Anne Catholic Church for University Middle School, which will open this fall.

The university refused to sign a lease that included a morality clause.

The university said financial issues were also at play and declined to provide an update on the effort to find a new location for the middle school.

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