School Boards Prosecute, Not Protect, Religious Freedoms
As discussed in the last issue of the Home School Court Report, a number of homeschoolers in the state of Virginia have applied for religious exemptions. In order to obtain a religious exemption to homeschool, the Virginia law requires that “A school board . . . shall excuse from attendance at school any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school” (§ 22.1-257).
While many Virginia families have easily obtained religious exemptions, certain counties have been unwilling to grant such exemptions. One such county is Bedford, where the Shiflett family has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain an exemption since early September.
The Shifletts have been homeschooling for two and a half years. Mr. Shiflett is an engineer and Mrs. Shiflett is a certified teacher. Because of their educational backgrounds and Mrs. Shiflett’s teaching experience, their homeschool would comply with Virginia’s homeschool statute. However, based upon their sincerely held religious beliefs, the Shifletts believe that complying with the homeschool statute would implicitly acknowledge the authority and control of the state. The Shifletts believe their children belong to God, not the state, and are entrusted to them as parents for care and training, which includes their education. Because of this belief, the family applied for a statutory religious exemption.
It was arranged for the Shifletts to meet with the county school board to explain why they desired a religious exemption. They did so, but only six of the seven school board members were present, so there was a tie vote—three in favor of granting the exemption and three opposed.
Due to the split decision, another meeting was scheduled. Chris Klicka, HSLDA’s executive director, wrote a legal memorandum to the school board on behalf of the family to help persuade the board to grant the exemption at the second meeting. This time all seven board members were present, but the decision was put on hold in order to investigate the legal implications.
A third meeting was scheduled, and this time the Shifletts brought witnesses to testify to their sincerely held religious beliefs. Unfortunately, all seven board members voted to deny the family a religious exemption. The board, however, did not limit its consideration to the sincerity of the Shifletts’ religious beliefs as required by law. Instead, it made excuses that granting a religious exemption, even though dictated by law in this instance, would prevent the monitoring of the progress of the Shiflett children. Since the board did not want to relinquish control, it would not grant a religious exemption.
As a result of this arbitrary denial, both Mr. and Mrs. Shiflett have been charged with truancy violations and a hearing is scheduled for March 3 and 4. Chris Klicka will represent the Shifletts at the trial.
On January 19, three other Virginia families were also denied religious exemptions (by the Lynchburg County School Board). One of the families, the Wegerts, was an HSLDA family. Chris Klicka represented the family at the hearing, arguing that applicable case law and the construction of the statute itself mandated that the Wegerts be granted a religious exemption. Klicka also recounted five recent examples of other counties where school boards granted religious exemptions to families with identical believes as the Wegerts. Unfortunately, the board denied all three families on the basis that they “did not fully meet the provisions set forth in the applicable section of the Code of Virginia.” The next move is in the hands of the superintendent.
Five other families have recently been granted religious exemptions elsewhere in Virginia. In Loudoun County, the Fassolino and Farris families received exemptions without appearing before the school board. The two families submitted letters stipulating their religious convictions, and the board consented to the exemptions. The Smithkins in Augusta County, the Shaws in Louisa County, and the Batemans in Portsmouth were similarly granted religious exemptions with little difficulty.
Meanwhile, a family in Charlottesville who received a religious exemption last school year is being threatened with prosecution this year if the parents refuse to allow school officials to come to their home to review their educational program and the academic progress of their children. This case is still at the negotiation stage, so it is possible that HSLDA attorneys may be able to convince the school board that prosecuting these parents, previously granted a religious exemption, would be a flagrant violation of the law, for once a religious exemption is granted, a family is exempt from any laws or regulations of the local school board applicable to public education.
This is clearly stated by Judge Fidler in a 1987 case, Commonwealth of VA v. Terry Foreman and Joyce Foreman, Fifteenth Judicial District, June 5, 1987 (handled by attorney Bill Beeton of Fairfax). The court held that § 22.1-257(A)(2) and various other sections in Chapter 14 of Title 22.1 indicate that if a family is entitled to a religious exemption from school attendance, the family is “exempt from any other laws, rules or regulations of the local School Board with reference to public education matters” (Opinion page 3).
In the Foreman case, the family applied for a religious exemption and was denied. The parents were subsequently charged with truancy pursuant to § 22.1-254. The court, however, found them “not guilty” and entitled to a religious exemption based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. The court supported its decision partly on the historical developments of Virginia’s religious freedom statutes. The court stated:
The Virginia statue for religious Freedom enacted by the General Assembly on January 16, 1786 (Section 57-1 of the Code of Virginia), well before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, sets the tone and direction of Religious Liberty in this State. Article I Section 16b of the Constitution of Virginia spells out in rather inescapable language what the Free Exercise of Religion means, “All men are equally entitled to the Free Exercise of Religion means, ‘All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of Religion, according to the dictates of conscience’—‘but it shall be left to every person to select his religious instructor.’ (Opinion page 2)”
Furthermore, the court emphasized that the county school boards and the courts are to protect the religious freedoms the family is seeking in this request for a religious exemption.
Neither the county School Boards nor Courts have any peculiar qualifications for deciding cases involving matters of deeply held religious beliefs. Our system of civil government however, requires such decisions and by virtue thereof becomes the primary protector of the very religious freedom these defendants seek. (Opinion page 3)
In other words, the state is to be the protector of religious freedom, not the prosecutor.
The court, most importantly, narrowed the issue in the case “to a question of whether the defendants have such a bona fide religious belief that causes them to conscientiously oppose attendance at school” (Opinion page 2). This means that the only issue that can be considered by a school board when entertaining a religious exemption request is whether the homeschool family’s belief is bona fide (sincerely held). Monitoring, curriculum, qualifications, or any other factor except sincerity of religious beliefs cannot be considered by the school board. The whole intent of the religious exemption statute is to release the family from state control.