Approval Process Challenged in Massachusetts
Recently, in New Life Baptist Church Academy v. East Longmeadow School District, No. 83-0580-W, U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, slip opinion July 27, 1987, the federal court found that the approval process established by the East Longmeadow School District was not the least restrictive means available to ensure the state’s interest in education.
In this case, New Life Baptist Church held a sincere religious belief that God is the ultimate sovereign of their church and to submit the educational ministry of the church for approval by the state would be sin. Fearing that participation in the “approval process” would result in state control of the church’s educational ministry, New Life initiated the action seeking to prohibit the defendant’s attempt to apply the statutory approval requirements to their ministry and requesting damages.
The court recognized that, when there is a conflict between a citizen’s constitutional right concerning free exercise of religious beliefs and the state’s compelling interest in ensuring that children are being educated, the burden rests with the state to prove that the means by which it seeks to satisfy its interest is the least restrictive means available. In this case, the court concluded that “East Longmeadow [had] not shown that its approval process is the least restrictive means of assuring New Life students are adequately educated” (page 41 of the slip opinion).
The court found that the school district was not “sufficiently sensitive to Plaintiffs’ sincere religious objections to submitting their education ministry for government approval. Nor [had] the Defendants recognized the limits of the legitimate state interest in the education of children and the alternatives which are adequate to satisfy the state’s interest” (pages 36–7). The court further found that “the state’s interest is in assuring that a child’s education occurs in a safe and healthy environment and prepares the child to be a productive worker and effective citizen in our democracy” (page 37). Concluding that “[T]he state’s interest remains in assuring that all children shall be educated, not that they shall be educated in any particular way” (page 74), the court determined that standardized testing is least restrictive and certainly sufficient to meet the state’s interest if accompanied by follow-up when needed (pages 71–2).
This case has been useful in helping the HSLDA legal staff resolve a number of difficult contacts this year. In Mansfield, two families were acknowledged by the school committee over the objections of the local superintendent. The HSLDA legal staff wrote an extensive letter objecting to several requirements of the homeschool policy influencing the school committee’s positive decision. Most importantly, both families prayerfully prepared for the school committee meeting and presented an excellent description for their religious convictions and curriculum.
In Walpole, attorney Klicka wrote a letter to the superintendent who was requiring an HSLDA member to submit periodic progress reports and have their children take a nationally recognized standardized achievement test. After seeing that the case precedent did not allow him to require both, the superintendent agreed to only testing.
After counseling with HSLDA, families in Falmouth and Townsend were officially recognized as homeschools without seeking approval or meeting before the school committee. Although a difficult state, God has opened doors for families to freely homeschool.