The Home School Court Report
Vol. XXIV
No. 4
Cover
July/August
2008

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The Last Word Previous Page Next Page
by J. Michael Smith
- disclaimer -
A Few Good Lawyers

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with a family applying for membership who were making the wise decision to home educate their child. In the process of discussing a little of this family’s background and how they ended up homeschooling, the parents expressed some real concern and distrust of attorneys. From what they were saying, it was obvious that they did not know I was an attorney, so I thought it important to let them know that not only was I an attorney, but there were eight other attorneys working full-time at HSLDA.

HSLDA / Art Cox
J. Michael Smith, President, Home School Legal Defense Association
...
A MERE 99.9%
OF LAWYERS GIVE
THE REST OF US
A BAD NAME.
...

I gave this new member family an opportunity to withdraw their membership. After all, being associated with an organization led by attorneys might be too hard to swallow. I did inform the parents that lawyers really get a bad rap, which is unjustified because a mere 99.9% of lawyers give the rest of us a bad name. I added further justification for attorneys by then asking these parents whether they knew why lawyers are buried 10 feet deep? My answer is that, deep down, lawyers are actually good people.

This seemed to change, at least slightly, this family’s view of attorneys, or at least of me, and they decided to go ahead and submit their application for membership. As HSLDA continues celebrating the 25th anniversary of our founding this year, I thought it might be good to share with you a little more about the makeup of our organization, focusing on our legal team.

You’ve heard us say before that HSLDA was founded to establish and protect the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. In support of that mission, all of HSLDA’s attorneys are not only homeschool advocates, but homeschooling dads themselves. Obviously, these homeschooling fathers have more at stake than just the cases HSLDA is handling at any given time. Each case, directly or indirectly, could impact their freedom to homeschool as well.

This was planned. HSLDA wanted to provide highly competent legal representation, with attorneys specializing in homeschool law. We also wanted attorneys who were 100% committed to homeschooling. Firsthand involvement in homeschooling would enable our attorneys to easily identify with our member families.

As a matter of fact, my own family experienced firsthand the conflict between school officials and our fundamental right to direct the education of our children here in Virginia. Unlike any other state, Virginia has a religious exemption from public school attendance in addition to other options for homeschooling provided under the state homeschool law. Under the religious exemption, a family files a notification with the local school district asserting the right to a religious exemption based upon objections to public school attendance, and the school then grants or denies the exemption. Our family’s exemption when we moved from California to Virginia was initially granted without any dispute.

When our children became teenagers, however, the county department of education informed us that our teenagers would have to submit an application to be exempted because the religious exemption required our children, as well as us, to conscientiously oppose public school attendance. The school district also took the position that the pupils (our children) were old enough to be tested as to their bona fide religious beliefs. They asserted that the children would have to appear before the school board for examination.

I informed the school district that my children would not be appearing before a school board, since I interpreted the statute differently than they did, but that I would have my children submit affidavits indicating what their religious beliefs were. The district wasn’t satisfied with this response and threatened prosecution.

Ultimately, the school district did accept the affidavits and granted the exemption. This experience helped give me a hands-on understanding of what our member families go through when being threatened with prosecution for homeschooling their children.

Just to give a little more background on the inside operation of HSLDA’s legal department, we have three lawyers devoted exclusively to litigation, should a member’s case escalate to an actual court case: Mike Farris, Jim Mason, and Darren Jones.

The six other lawyers are assigned to various states and are HSLDA’s first line of defense as “contact lawyers”: Christopher Klicka, Dewitt Black, Scott Woodruff, Thomas Schmidt, Mike Donnelly, and myself. Contact lawyers not only handle legal contacts, but are also responsible for the legislative issues that take place in our assigned states. Each attorney has a very able legal assistant, and many of these assistants are already in law school themselves. On a daily basis, we seek to defuse our member families’ legal situations at the local level with a straightforward phone call, letter, or email whenever possible.

During the legislative season, the lawyers and their legal assistants monitor their states almost daily for both good laws that would expand homeschool freedom and any bad laws that could restrict the freedom to homeschool and/or parental rights. Working in conjunction with state homeschool organizations, our attorneys interact with state legislatures and travel to state capitols to testify as needed.

Another valuable role that our attorneys play is speaking at homeschool conferences around the country, where they can meet our members and others who have questions about homeschooling in their state.

So to those of you who are skeptical of lawyers, HSLDA’s lawyers are among the finest in the country. They are all current or former homeschooling dads and are committed to this lifework because they believe in it with their whole heart. (And just remember, we can thank lawyers for copper wire—which was invented when two lawyers got into a dispute over a penny!)

Lastly, whenever you hear people complaining about their lawyer or lawyers in general, take satisfaction in knowing that your HSLDA lawyer believes in you and will be a zealous advocate for your freedoms.