Is the sacred cow of certification about to tumble in North Dakota?
Well, the cow is at least tottering, for God has given us victory on two fronts. That is right, homeschoolers have recently won battles both in and out of court in North Dakota!
Although a sparsely populated state, North Dakota proportionately has consumed much of Home School Legal Defense Association’s time, for it is one of three remaining states that require teacher certification for those instructing their children at home. Numerous charges have been brought against homeschoolers in North Dakota in recent years. Some families have been charged more than once, and the outcome has always been the same—defeat for homeschoolers. Although each time HSLDA attorneys believe that the State has failed miserably in its attempt to prove that the children in question are not being educated and therefore the state’s interest of having a literate populace and citizens who can provide for themselves economically are not being met, no court in North Dakota has ever ruled against the state until now.
Jonathan and Diane Melin were charged with truancy in North Dakota because they refused to enroll their son in either a public or private school. Attorneys Farris and Smith prepared and filed the trial brief. The Melins were subsequently brought to trial in Dickey County, North Dakota, represented by attorney Greg Lange of Hazen, North Dakota. On September 3, 1987, Judge Gary D. Neuharth dismissed the complaint against the Melins, stating that the family proved “the depth, quality and sincerity of their religious beliefs . . . proved the literacy of Teddy, [and] proved nothing harmful occurred to the public safety, health or welfare” and, therefore, he found “teacher certification not to be the least restrictive means in achieving the state’s education goals when applied to the Melins’ constitutional rights.” Judge Neuharth further stated that “[i]t remains the legislative task and prerogative to fashion a remedy that does not unreasonably interfere with the liberty of parents in the education of their children in the expression of constitutional rights” (State of North Dakota v. Melin, No. 376, County Court of Dickey, September 3, 1987, p. 8).
Judge Neuharth recognized the inseparability of the Melins’ sincerely held religious convictions and the practice of their faith, which includes the education of their children. He also saw that the teacher certification requirement was unduly burdening the Melins’ religious freedom, was not necessarily fulfilling the state’s interest, and was certainly not the least restrictive means available to the state to preserve its interest. And finally, Judge Neuharth’s ruling confined the state’s legitimate interest in education to the product rather than the process (that product being literacy and the ability to provide for oneself economically), for he stated that “. . . teacher certification does not correlate well to teaching ability . . . The Melins have proved that Teddy is being educated within our society’s expectations—he is becoming a ‘viable citizen’” (Melin, page 6).
Furthermore, HSLDA also recently won a battle at a local board meeting. After extensive counseling by Michael Farris, two homeschooling families went before the Hazen School Board this fall attempting to obtain religious exemptions for homeschooling their children based on the premise that their children are not “educable” in the public school setting due to their religious convictions. The families based their requests upon North Dakota Code § 15-34.1-03(4) which would excuse a child from public school attendance based upon an existing mental condition. The argument used by the two families centered around the religious convictions of their children. They argued the children should be excluded from public school attendance because the public education process would be neither expedient nor practical for their children based upon the children’s religious presuppositions, which would be diametrically opposed to the prevailing public school philosophy.
The board elected to grant the exclusion for the Evans family, because the Evans’ daughter was in the 5th grade and had never been enrolled in a public school. It denied the Van Inwagens’ request, however, because their child was only a 1st-grader and, therefore, the board had reason to hope she was not so inculcated with Christian doctrine that her mind was “unredeemable’ through public school instruction.
The Van Inwagens now have the right under the aforementioned section of the North Dakota Code to appeal the local board’s decision to the county superintendent and ultimately to the state superintendent of public instruction. Attorney Farris is preparing their appeal.
What makes HSLDA attorneys believe these decisions by the Hazen School Board will be helpful for other homeschoolers in North Dakota? First, the fact that the same school board denied one family an exclusion and granted one to the other based upon the age of the child rather than the child’s sincerely held religious beliefs shows that the decision was based upon arbitrary criteria. This can be used in subsequent instances to demonstrate the inconsistencies of the North Dakota law. Secondly, this is the first exception of this kind to ever be granted in North Dakota. If one school district acknowledges the validity of this argument, others will do likewise.