Homeschool Teacher Requirement Unconstitutional, Court Rules

Michigan law required homeschoolers to have state certified teachers.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01


Key point. Parents who choose to educate their children at home on the basis of their religious beliefs may be required to comply with requirements imposed by state law, but only if those requirements are supported by a compelling governmental interest and constitute the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring parents who educate their children at home to use state certified teachers violated the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. A couple was prosecuted and convicted for educating their children at home in violation of a state law mandating that homeschoolers use state certified teachers. The couple chose to educate their children themselves as a result of their desire to provide them with a “Christ—centered education.” They appealed their conviction to the state supreme court which ruled that the certified teacher requirement could not be imposed upon parents who educate their children at home as a result of their religious convictions. The court noted that the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that when the guaranty of religious freedom is coupled with another constitutional right, such as the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, then a state law that interferes with these rights is constitutionally permissible only if is supported by a compelling government interest. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). The court noted that the “compelling government interest” test consists of 5 elements: (1) whether an individual’s belief, or conduct motivated by belief, is sincerely held; (2) whether an individual’s belief, or conduct motivated in belief, is religious in nature; (3) whether a state regulation imposes a burden on the exercise of such belief or conduct; (4) whether a compelling state interest justifies the burden imposed upon the individual’s belief or conduct; and (5) whether there is a less restrictive form of regulation available to the state. The court concluded that the State of Michigan failed this test, and therefore the constitutional rights of the parents were violated by the certified teacher requirement. It noted that the parents’ beliefs were sincerely held and religious in nature; that the certified teacher requirement significantly burdened the exercise of the parents’ rights; and, that the state’s interest in the certified teacher requirement was not compelling and its interest in the education of homeschoolers could be accomplished in less restrictive ways than the certified teacher requirement. In reaching this conclusion the court pointed to the experience of other states. It noted that the “nearly universal consensus of our sister states is to permit home schooling without demanding teacher certified instruction,” and concluded that this fact demonstrated that the State of Michigan did not have a “compelling interest” in this requirement. In other words, if this interest were indeed “compelling,” why have so few states reached this conclusion? The court could find only two other states (Alabama and California) that required certified teachers in home schools. The court also agreed with the parents that annual standardized testing of homeschooled children was a “less restrictive means” of accomplishing the state’s interest in education. Accordingly, the teacher certification requirement could not be upheld.

The court concluded:

In sum we conclude that the historical underpinnings of the first amendment of the United States Constitution and the case law in support of it compels the conclusion that the imposition of the certification requirement upon the [parents] violates the free exercise [of religion] clause [of the first amendment]. We so conclude because we find that the certification requirement is not essential to nor is it the least restrictive means of achieving the state’s claimed interest …. We hold that the teacher certification requirement is an unconstitutional violation of the free exercise clause of the first amendment as applied to families whose religious convictions prohibit the use of certified instructors. Such families, therefore, are exempt from the dictates of the teacher certification requirement. People v. DeJonge, 501 N.W.2d 127 (Mich. 1993). [ “Homeschools”]

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