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Jan 30, 2014

Virginia’s Religious Freedom Should be Prized—Not Scrutinized

Dave Dentel

A state delegate’s proposal to “study” Virginia’s religious exemption to compulsory education laws has given rise to an unsettling debate—one that could prove harmful to both homeschooling and religious liberty.

Filed early this year, Del. Thomas Rust’s resolution stems from several recent events connected with the religious exemption.

The Washington Post has since followed up Rust’s filing with an article on the reaction to the proposed legislation. It reveals an unfortunate strain of thought at odds with Virginia’s historic high regard for religious freedom and allied with the sort of presumptuous statism that—in the name of fairness—instead seeks to impose on citizens a rigid conformity.

Consider Rust’s rationale. He says he wants to be sure that all homeschool parents provide their children an adequate education. Left unsaid is an ominous implication: in a disagreement over what constitutes an adequate education it is lawmakers who should have the final say.

But forcing dissenters to give way to the state is the opposite of freedom. This truth is what guided founders such as Thomas Jefferson to enshrine in Virginia’s famous religious freedom statute a profound respect for the rights of individual conscience.

Men like Jefferson—and Bill of Rights proponent James Madison—recognized that ultimately the state has no power over what its citizens believe. It is God who grants reason and faith and who gives parents the gift of children and the obligation to teach them.

In light of this reality, any restriction on religiously exempt homeschoolers in Virginia can only represent a regression toward the pre-revolutionary days of intolerance. At that time Virginia recognized a single established church. Dissenters, if they were tolerated at all, could practice their faith only if they complied with restrictions such as licenses and added taxes. Rabble-rousers who failed to follow the rules ended up exiled or in jail.

Critics of the current religious exemption, of course, argue that their object is not persecution but what they consider reasonable oversight. Yet the question remains: how much state oversight in regard to a citizen’s most deeply held beliefs is reasonable?

As for current government meddling, HSLDA Senior Counsel Scott Woodruff points out that of all the legal options for education outside public schools in Virginia the religious exemption is in some respect the most restrictive. It requires the active involvement of the local public school board. For homeschoolers to obtain the exemption, they must come and ask for it—and the board members must review the request.

But for families teaching under the state’s homeschooling statute, the school board’s role is completely passive. Parents simply file their notice of intent, and they’re done.

Private schools in Virginia, meanwhile, operate without and state government oversight or regulation.

Given these facts, how can anyone dare to single out religious homeschoolers as a faction in need of greater scrutiny?

Indeed, when it comes to matters of religion in general, Virginia has chosen the broad and honorable path of liberty. Let’s keep it that way.

Photo Credit: Tony Fischer Photography via Compfight cc

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