Home-school suit centers on religious freedom

More than 50 Pennsylvania families who home school their children for religious reasons are using a little-known state law to force school districts out of the educational process.

School districts tend to back off when parents cite Pennsylvania's recently passed Religious Freedom Protection Act, home schooling advocates say. But this year, school officials in Bristol Township and in western Pennsylvania have threatened to charge two of those families with truancy.

The parents responded by suing them.

Now, two lawsuits could test Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act of 2002 and the state's home education law. The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment will also be in question in regards to home schooling in Pennsylvania, say home-schooling advocates.

The underlying question is whether the state's home education regulations infringe upon the religious expression of families who home school their kids for religious reasons.

Many of Pennsylvania's home-school advocates, both secular and religious, support exempting families from state law for religious reasons. They consider the law to be one of the most stringent in the nation and would like to see it toned down for all home-schooling families.

The Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, a national religion-based home-schooling advocacy group, is providing legal counsel for both families. Lawyers from the HSLDA are confident they'll win because they've won similar cases in states with less extensive home education laws.

"The (Pennsylvania) home school law is nuts. It's really restrictive," said Darren Jones, a staff attorney for HSLDA.

However, the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union and the Bristol Township School District say the law doesn't burden anyone's religious practices. Rather it ensures that all students are being educated.

"The district isn't doing anything other than enforcing the home-school regulations," said David Truelove, solicitor for Bristol Township schools. "(The law) has been crafted to meet all the needs of any home-schooled children, including those with sincerely held religious beliefs."

Pennsylvania's home education law requires evaluators who are approved by a school district to interview home-schooled children and to assess their schoolwork. Parents must submit to the school district a list of goals for their children's education along with a detailed log of their child's progress each year. If the superintendent deems that a home-schooled student isn't learning, he can call a hearing to try to return that child to school.

In their lawsuit filed last week, Tom and Babette Hankin of Croydon said these requirements are a substantial burden on their religious expression. The family belongs to the conservative Christian Free Presbyterian Church of North America.

"It would be sinful for them to engage in conduct and expression that would seek approval from the secular civil government for the holy and sacred education they are duty-bound by God to provide their children," said the complaint, which was filed in Bucks County Court. "It would be sinful for them to have any association with the public school system."

In February, Mark and Maryalice Newborn filed a similar lawsuit against the Franklin Regional School District in Westmoreland County court.

Since the 1990s, the HSLDA had been looking for Pennsylvania families to challenge the state law, Jones said. The HSLDA is confident it could have won the lawsuits based solely on the First Amendment, he said. But Jones said Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act passed in 2002 has significantly bolstered its argument.

According to the act, "neither state nor local government should substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification."

The act is in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave states more authority to restrict religious freedom. As an act of good faith, several states, including Pennsylvania and California, passed laws promising not to infringe on religion.

In Pennsylvania's case, the act orders courts to decide whether a law constrains religious expression. If the courts determine that the state's home education does, then they must determine whether Pennsylvania has compelling justification to do so.

If the home-schooling regulation is justified, then the courts must decide whether Pennsylvania is enforcing it in the least restrictive manner regarding religious expression.

Jones said he expects the courts to decide that Pennsylvania is not enforcing its home education law in the least restrictive way when compared to other states. New Jersey just requires parents to notify a school district that they are home schooling their children if school officials feel education is not occurring, he said.

"The Religious Freedom Protection Act gives us a really good club to use," Jones from HSLDA said. "But we thought we had a really good chance anyway because the Pennsylvania law is so out there compared to the rest of the country."

The Hankins and the Newborns don't have a chance, according to the ACLU.

"I'd be surprised if the court agrees," said Larry Frankel, legislative director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.

Frankel said if the Hankins and Newborns are successful in their claims of religious freedom, then Satanists could justify not teaching their children to read. He said the court cases would give the Religious Freedom Protection Act a bad name.

"The law doesn't say they can't teach their children x, y and z. The school districts just want some evidence that students are actually being educated," he said. "The school district has a right to expect that something is happening, that their children are not running free all day."

Norma Young, who lives in Quakertown, is on the advisory board of the Pennsylvania Home Educators Association, a secular organization.

She said the majority of home-schooling parents would like to see "deregulation" of Pennsylvania's home education law - not just an exemption based on religious freedom. Young said she'd rather see a law requiring families to alert school districts of their intent to home school with no further involvement.

"I don't know that we'll be successful [with these court cases] the way you might think," Young said. "What this might do is cause the legislature or the courts to seriously look and address the law so parents can home school under less restrictive means."