A California appellate court ruled last week that a family's religious convictions do not guarantee a right to homeschool their children.
"California courts have held that under provisions in the Education Code, parents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children," wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey for California's Second District Court of Appeal.
The parents, identified in court papers only by the last initial L, but identified by several news organizations as Phillip and Mary Long, told the court that their religious beliefs for homeschooling "are based on biblical teachings and principles." But that's not enough for an exemption from California education requirements, the court ruled February 28.
"Such sparse representations are too easily asserted by any parent who wishes to homeschool his or her child," Croskey wrote.
The court ruled that minor children must attend a public school unless the child attends a private school or is taught by a teacher with a valid state teaching license.
"This case probably sends that kind of chilling message for people who are trying to homeschool legally," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
Mike Smith, president of the Virginia-based Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), estimates that 60,000 families who homeschool in California could be affected by the decision, because many parents do not have teachers' licenses.
"Ten percent or less would be able to homeschool under this interpretation," Smith said. "If a school district got hold of this opinion, they could attempt to drag a family into court."
Families who homeschool their children in California are required to file a private school affidavit with state regulators or to enroll their children in alternate education programs such as private school satellite instruction or independent study.
Last week's court ruling may tighten the requirement further. The court ruled that the state's education law allowing for independent study "does not apply to mother's home schooling of the children." The children in the case had been enrolled in Sunland Christian School, an institution that coordinates independent study programs for homeschooling families.
Smith said California is the most restrictive state in the country for homeschooling families. He said the family was not a member of the HSLDA, but the organization hopes to appeal the case by arguing for the family's constitutional rights to homeschool.
The case came to the attention of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services after one of the family's eight children reported "physical and emotional mistreatment by the children's father," according to the opinion.
An attorney for Children and Family Services asked a juvenile court to order that the children be enrolled in a public or private school. The trial court refused, citing the parents' right under the California Constitution to homeschool their children.
Despite its refusal to issue the order, the juvenile court gave the "opinion that the homeschooling the children were receiving was 'lousy,' 'meager,' and 'bad,'" Croskey wrote. The lower court also said that homeschooling the children deprived them of ways to interact with people outside the family, that other people could provide help if something was "amiss" in the children's lives, and that the children could develop emotionally in a broader world than the family's "cloistered" setting.
Is homeschooling like the Amish, or peyote?
The juvenile court's decision was an "error of law," Croskey wrote in last week's opinion.
The parents had argued that the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder a case in which an Amish family was permitted to homeschool their children granted religious freedom grounds for homeschooling.
But the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision wasn't about personal beliefs, Croskey wrote. The Supreme Court "found that the Amish traditional way of life does not rest on personal preferences but rather on 'deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living.'"
The parents in the California case weren't the first to claim that the Yoder decision granted a broad religious exemption from mandatory schooling laws, said Haynes at the First Amendment Center. "But it just doesn't seem to work. The Amish were treated in an exotic way."
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the free exercise clause in the Constitution's First Amendment doesn't allow individuals to break the law, so long as those laws don't specifically target religious activity. In that case, Employment Division v. Smith, the court said the state of Oregon could fire employees for using the drug peyote even if it was used for religious purposes.
"Since this case, it has been much more difficult [to argue a case] under the free exercise clause," Haynes said. "This case is a reminder that free exercise claims, religious freedom claims, are difficult to sustain in court."
Croskey's decision suggested that the homeschooling family had specific issues that precluded options used by many other homeschooling parents in California. In sending the case back to the lower court, the appellate court placed restrictions on the family.
"Given the history of this family, which we need not discuss here, permitting the parents to educate the children at home by means of a credentialed tutor would likely pose too many difficulties for the tutor," Croskey wrote. He also said the court should not permit the students to re-enroll in Sunland Christian School.
"That school was willing to participate in the deprivation of the children's right to a legal education," Croskey wrote.
Sunland Christian School posted a response on its website calling the appellate court's ruling "a bad decision."
"While this case could have negative implications for California homeschoolers, nothing has changed to your right to homeschool," the school said. "There is no need to panic or make any changes to your current situation."
The Pacific Justice Institute says it will represent Sunland Christian School in an appeal to the California Supreme Court.
"The scope of this decision by the appellate court is breathtaking," said Pacific Justice Institute president Brad Dacus. "If not reversed, the parents of the more than 166,000 students currently receiving an education at home will be subject to criminal sanctions."
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Other coverage includes:
Ruling seen as a threat to many home-schooling families | State appellate court says those who teach children in private must have a credential (Los Angeles Times)
Court: No Constitutional Right to Educate Children at Home (Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Los Angeles)