Virginia Wrestles with Religious Exemptions
For many years, Virginia home schoolers have had the option of obtaining a religious exemption pursuant to section 22.1-257 of the Virginia Code. However, depending on the county, a religious exemption may be very difficult to obtain.
Religious Exemptions Granted
Recently, Attorney Chris Klicka of HSLDA appeared before school boards in Roanoke and Mecklenburg Counties representing the Jones and Wade families, respectively. The school boards in both instances denied the families a religious exemption after lengthy hearings. Neither school board explained why the religious exemptions were denied. After unsuccessfully attempting to obtain a rehearing, Klicka filed appeals of both decisions to the County Circuit Courts.
However, there have also been several favorable developments. In Lynchburg, two HSLDA families, the Wegerts and the Knodels, who were denied religious exemptions last year, were granted religious exemptions last month. Also the Christensen family in Culpeper was granted a religious exemption, representing a dramatic change of position for the county school board, which had been denying religious exemptions for years.
Favorable Attorney General Opinion Issued
Furthermore, on November 18, 1988, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry issued an opinion regarding the application of the religious belief exception to Virginia’s compulsory school attendance law. For the most part, the Attorney General confirmed HSLDA’s legal interpretation and application of the religious exemption law.
The Attorney General opinion emphasizes that religious beliefs, in order to be bona fide, do not need to be part of the form of worship of a particular sect. (p. 2 of the Attorney General Opinion of November 18, 1988) In fact, “there is no legal requirement…that a…religious belief meet organizational or doctrinal tests in order to qualify for constitutional protection.” (Id. p.2) Furthermore, the Attorney General states:
A believer’s articulation of his religion should not be dissected and rejected simply because it is not as sophisticated as it might be, nor should interfaith differences determine what is a religious belief and what is merely a personal philosophical belief. [Thomas v. Review Brd., 450 U.S. 707] at 715. “The guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all members of a religious sect.” Id. at 715–16.
Id. p.2. It is irrelevant whether other people in the family’s church believe differently concerning the education of their children.
In addition, the Attorney General explains that a religious exemption request:
…requires a thorough assessment of all the facts on a case-by-case basis. Membership in a particular church or religion may be considered, but it is not conclusive in determining whether a bona fide religious belief exists to support a religious exemption from the compulsory school attendance.
Id. p.3. In other words, the family's church membership is only one factor of many in determining whether the family’s religious beliefs are bona fide. By no means is church membership the deciding factor. A family’s religious beliefs can and often are found to be sincere even though their church does not require such beliefs.
Regarding the monitoring of the education of the family, the Attorney General is very specific. She explains that reasonable educational monitoring is not constitutionally prohibited when a religious exemption is claimed.
Under the provisions of Section 22.1-256(A)(4), however, the General Assembly has provided a complete exemption from compulsory school attendance for a child excused on religious grounds. It is my opinion, therefore, that a school system lacks the authority to monitor the educational growth of a child through regular testing…
Id. p.5. In other words, only the religious beliefs can be monitored, not the educational progress.
Lastly, the Attorney General declares:
There can be no question that local school boards must respect a bona fide religious objection to school attendance made by parents on behalf of their children. Parents have the right to direct the religious growth of their children, and there are no facts presented that would outweigh this parental right.
This Attorney General Opinion has already influenced the Lynchburg school board to loosen its position on religious exemptions.
State School Board Association Conference
On January 25, 1989, Attorney Chris Klicka was invited to debate the issues surrounding religious exemptions before a large group of school attorneys who represented school boards throughout the state. Patrick Lacy, president of the VSBA Council of School Attorneys, invited Klicka as “the token Christian.”
Klicka had an opportunity to speak for a half hour and present handouts, and the opposing attorney had an equal amount of time. Then a panel of attorneys presented questions, and questions were also taken from the audience. The opposing attorney basically concurred with Klicka’s conclusion that school boards do not have much of a choice but to grant religious exemptions if a family submits a detailed description of their beliefs. He also stated that once granted, the local school districts had no authority to monitor the educational program of the religious home schooler. However, he did suggest that the way to escape this “dilemma” was to amend the religious exemption statute.
Most of the attorneys present seemed to resign themselves that as long as the religious exemption was in the Code, they could not do much else but to grant them. The overall atmosphere was very positive. Please pray that these attorneys will return to their school districts and accurately apply the law.