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Federal Judge Rules Dance Ban Unconstitutional

August 2, 1988

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ Teen-agers from an Ozarks town responded with a resounding cheer Monday, and maybe even kicked up their heels a bit, when a federal judge threw out a century-old ban on school dances.

U.S. District Judge Russell Clark said the ban on school-sponsored dancing in Purdy has the effect of promoting religious values, is unconstitution al, and ″must be invalidated.″

″I thought we’d win,″ said Nancy Fox, 16, who will be student president at the 160-pupil Purdy High School this fall. ″They (school board members) never gave anything concrete, a good reason why we shouldn’t dance.″

The judge stopped short of ordering the school board to schedule a dance. Miss Fox said she would try to organize a school-year opening dance.

Residents of Purdy, about 60 miles southwest of Springfield, say the ban could be 100 years old. The rule states: ’School dances are not authorized and school premises shall not be used for purposes of conducting a dance.″

The judge, in his ruling, said, ″Even if the defendants could show a valid secular purpose, the primary effect of this rule is to endorse the tenets of that particular religious group in Purdy who believe that social dancing is sinful.″

Clark awarded the plaintiffs in the 1986 civil suit nearly everything the 21 students and their parents asked for: $1 in nominal damages, attorney fees and an order that the school board stop enforcing its ban on dancing.

About 20 teens and a few parents drove to the courthouse in Springfield to hear the judge’s decision from their attorney, William Fleischaker.

″I hope at this point they (school board members) will sit down with the students and they will come up with a plan to have a dance,″ Fleischaker said. ″I think if they don’t start being reasonable, they’re likely to be dealt with harshly in the future. We could theoretically end up back in court asking enforcement of the decision.″

School board member Art Negre said he had not been advised of Clark’s ruling and had no comment. Repeated attempts to reach the other school board members by phone were unsuccessful and Superintendent Sheldon Buxton was reported to be out of the state.

Ransom Ellis Jr., an attorney for the school board, said the court’s conclusions that the board was motivated by religious reasons ″in our viewpoint was not correct,″ but no decision on an appeal had been made.

″We’re deeply disappointed in the court’s decision,″ Ellis said. ″In our view we do not believe the board acted in an unconstitutional manner. They were reacting to the community viewpoint, which they as elected officials were obligated to do.″

Clark called ″unpersuasive″ the testimony of school board members during a four-day hearing in June that they did not know why the community opposed dancing, but felt the ban was the will of the majority.

″This court is skeptical that it heard the complete story concerning the board members’ deliberations of the rule and the religious significance of the opposition to dancing in Purdy,″ Clark wrote.

Although dances were banned on school property, dances have been held at a community center in the town, and Purdy students have organized junior-senior proms and held them in neighboring communities.

The controversy escalated after the class of 1986 failed to persuade the school board to drop the ban, and dance supporters held a rally like the one in the movie, ″Footloose,″ about a fictional Texas town where dancing was banned.

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