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Nevada high court asked to rule in parents’ dispute over school

CARSON CITY — In a dispute fit for Solomon, the Nevada Supreme Court this week will hear arguments in a Las Vegas case seeking guidance on what factors apply in determining where a child of a divorced couple should attend school.

The case pits the mother, Melissa Arcella, who wants her 12-year-old daughter to attend the public Bob Miller Middle School, against the father, Matthew Arcella, who wants the child to attend the private Faith Lutheran Middle School. The couple divorced in 2009 and have joint custody of their two children.

Melissa Arcella objected to her daughter, identified as RA, attending Faith Lutheran on religious grounds.

A legal filing describes the issue in the case as one of “first impression in Nevada” that also holds significant implications for fundamental rights under both the Nevada and U.S. constitutions.

The parents in the case declined comment.

At issue is whether Melissa Arcella’s religious objections should take precedence in the decision about which school her daughter attends.

Another question is whether the child should have a say in which school she attends. The lower court did not conduct a hearing or ask the child her preferences before ruling in the case.

Clark County Family Court Judge Lisa Brown said in her order issued last fall that it was in the best interests of the child to attend both schools but found that it was not feasible. She relied on Melissa Arcella’s religious objection to order the child to attend Bob Miller Middle School.

Matthew Arcella appealed the ruling. In a brief filed in the case, Las Vegas attorney Bruce Shapiro called Brown’s decision “openly hostile” to religious education.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Thursday and issue a ruling later in the case, which has been fast-tracked for a quick decision.

The parents’ two children have attended private school throughout their lives, according to the briefs filed in the case, but not religious schools.

Matthew Arcella said that his daughter expressed a desire to attend Faith Lutheran and that his ex-wife’s religious objections are new.

The lower court should have held an evidentiary hearing and asked the child what school she wanted to attend, according to the legal briefs.

“The issue before this court, therefore, is not one of ‘religious freedom,’ but of the appropriate parameters of parental directives in school enrollment decisions,” Shapiro said.

But Las Vegas attorney F. Peter James, representing Melissa Arcella, described Faith Lutheran as a “religious private school where salvation of each student is the primary concern — not education.”

James said Matthew Arcella was “unduly influencing” his daughter on the school issue. He also noted that the Bob Miller Middle School has been designated a five-star school by the Department of Education.

In a comment provided to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Shapiro said: “Exercising the power of the state, the District Court judge issued an order openly hostile to religious education. Finding that ‘Faith Lutheran’s stated main objective was salvation of the students,’ the District Court usurped father’s constitutional right to participate in the child’s upbringing and unilaterally compelled the child to have a public education without any finding that this served the child’s best interest.”

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.

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