Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches

A federal district court in New York ruled that a state law governing "homeschooling" did not violate the constitutional right of fundamentalist Christian parents to the free exercise of their religion. The law in question requires that educational services provided to a minor "elsewhere than at a public school shall be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given to minors of like age and attainments at the public schools." The law also requires that homeschooling be conducted by "competent" instructors, and calls for periodic standardized testing and the approval of a homeschool's curriculum and textbooks. Visits of homes in which homeschooling occurs is also mandated. A group of parents challenged the law, contending that the state "did not have jurisdiction" over their children's education. In particular, the parents maintained that their religious beliefs compelled them to give their children a religious education in which religious values are "interwoven" into every area of study, and that the New York law violated their right to religious freedom by reserving unto the state the power to approve or disapprove the manner in which they accomplished the religious education of their children. The court acknowledged that "it is with trepidation that [we] interfere with the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children." Nevertheless, the court concluded that the state's interest in ensuring an adequate education for its citizens was sufficiently compelling to justify the legal restrictions on homeschooling. The court observed: "Unless a child is a member of an identifiable religious sect with a long history of maintaining a successful community separate and apart from American society in general, it must be assumed that the child must be intellectually, socially, and psychologically prepared to interact with others who may not share the views of the parents in the [present case]. A state's interest in establishing standards for the education of its young in order to prepare them for participation in American political and economic processes as well as to nurture and develop their human potential overrides the interest of parents to teach their children in a religious school or at home free from governmental interference." The court acknowledged that the parents feared that the state would require them to teach secular matters inconsistent with their religious beliefs. While acknowledging that "there may be cases in which the manner the state enforces the mandate of [the law] unnecessarily infringes the free exercise rights of particular parents." However, "the mere possibility that such cases might arise is not enough to invalidate" the state law. As a result, the court rejected the parents' challenge to the constitutionality of the New York law. Blackwelder v. Safnauer, 689 F. Supp. 106 (N.D.N.Y. 1988).

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Posted: January 2, 1989



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