For many years, home schoolers in Michigan have faced intense persecution under the restrictive teacher certification law and a hostile department of education. In fact, since 1985, scores of Home School Legal Defense Association member families have been prosecuted by the state and successfully defended by attorney Christopher Klicka, along with local counsel Dave Kallman. In spite of these victories, two 1985 cases, People v. DeJonge and People v. Bennett, handled by Christopher Klicka and Michael Farris of HSLDA, were met with defeat after defeat at every level of appeal. On May 25, 1993, all this changed.
After eight long years of litigation, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with HSLDA’s arguments, reversing both cases in a 4-3 decision and overturning the criminal convictions of Mark and Chris DeJonge and John and Sandra Bennett.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s reversal of the lower court’s rulings benefits not only these families, but every single family in the state of Michigan who objects to teacher certification on religious grounds. The ruling in DeJonge essentially grants a state-wide exemption from teacher certification for all of these families, quickly transforming Michigan from the worst home-schooling state in the country to one of the best.
Background of the DeJonge Case
In 1985, Mark and Chris DeJonge of Ottawa County decided to home school their children, Tony and Alisa. Soon after they began home schooling, the DeJonges were contacted by their local school district and told that in order to legally home school, they had to use a certified teacher or be certified themselves. Mark and Chris strongly believed that God had called them as parents to teach their own children. They informed the school district that they could not comply with the teacher certification requirement. As a consequence, they were charged with criminal truancy.
HSLDA secured Lansing attorney Dave Kallman to handle the trial. During the proceedings, the trial judge remarked that he was impressed with the “very, very favorable report of the education of the children,” based on expert testimony and high test scores. He also found the DeJonges’ religious beliefs to be sincere.
Nevertheless, the DeJonges were convicted and sentenced to two years’ probation for instructing their children without state certified teachers. They were fined $200.00, required to test their children for academic achievement, and ordered to arrange for certified instruction. This decision was affirmed by the circuit court in 1988 and three times by the Court of Appeals in 1989, 1990, and 1991. The Michigan Supreme Court finally agreed to hear DeJonge in 1992, and Michael Farris argued the case before the Court that November.
Original Intent of the Framers
The Court’s decision in this case relies heavily on the original intent of the Constitution’s framers, making DeJonge one of the most significant religious freedom cases in the last twenty years. In their written opinion, the Michigan Supreme Court stated:
This Court has long held that the Constitution must be interpreted in light of the original intent and understanding of its drafters … These rules of constitutional construction are indispensable because the literal construction of the words without regard to their obvious purpose of protection is to make the constitutional safeguard no more than a shabby hoax, a barrier of words, easily destroyed by other words … The constitutional limitation must be construed to effectuate, not to abolish, the protection sought by it to be afforded (Slip. Op., pp. 8-9).
Inclusion of a quote by Alexander Hamilton further demonstrates the Court’s commitment to original intent: “Adherence to the original intent is crucial to insure that courts do not substitute their own pleasure to the constitutional intentions of the people” (Slip. Op., p. 9).
The Michigan Supreme Court emphasized that religious liberty is the “first freedom” and that it must be diligently protected by the government. In a footnote on page 11, the Court quotes Thomas Jefferson, saying that “religious liberty is a fundamental freedom outside the legitimate sphere of government power unless threatening harm to another.” The Court further evidenced its high regard for religious liberty with the statement that “the founders understood that zealous protection of religious liberty was essential to the preservation of free government.” In fact, on page 15 of the decision, the Court even implied that the Michigan constitution affords “additional protection to the free exercise of religion” above and beyond the U.S. Constitution.
The Proper Application of the "Compelling Interest Test"
Whenever the fundamental freedom of religious liberty is combined with another fundamental right, such as the right of parents to educate their children, a special test must be applied in order to see if the state’s interest will override the individual’s free exercise of religion. The test being used today is the “compelling interest test.” Many courts misapply this test and find in favor of the state over the religious claimant. One of the reasons that DeJonge is so significant is that, in this case, the Court properly applied the four-point “compelling interest test.”
In order to satisfy the first part of the test, the DeJonges had to prove that they had a sincere religious belief against being certified or using a certified teacher. Secondly, the family had to prove that their religious beliefs were burdened by the state’s requirement. The Michigan Supreme Court found that the DeJonges easily met both parts of the “compelling interest test.” The Court stated:
As noted, the DeJonges believe that the Word of God commands them to educate their children without state certification. Any regulation interfering with that commandment is state regulation of religion. The certification requirement imposes upon the DeJonges a loathsome dilemma: they must either violate the law of God to abide by the law of man or commit a crime under the law of man to remain faithful to God. The requirement presents a irreconcilable conflict between the mandates of law and religious duty … (Slip. Op., pp. 20-21).
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the burden of proof for the second two parts of the “compelling interest test” rests on the prosecution. In the DeJonges’ case, the state had to prove that teacher certification was essential for children to be educated, and that it was the least restrictive means of fulfilling their interest in the children’s education. The state had never proven these two points. Even though attorney Christopher Klicka raised this issue, the Court of Appeals refused to reverse the decision.
The Michigan Supreme Court, however, carefully applied the complete “compelling interest test.” The Court acknowledges that although education is important,
Our rights are meaningless if they do not permit an individual to challenge and be free from those abridgements of liberty that are otherwise vital to society … Hence, Michigan’s interest in compulsory education is not absolute and must yield to the constitutional liberties protected by the First Amendment (Slip. Op., pp. 26-27).
In other words, the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom should not automatically lose in the face of a conflicting state regulation. This decision is refreshing. Many other state supreme courts have said that the individuals’ free exercise rights are not absolute and must yield to the states’ interests in compulsory education.
In a further application of the “compelling interest test,” the Court found that, “The State, therefore, must establish that enforcing the certification requirement, without exception, is essential to insure the education required by the compulsory education law” (Slip. Op., p. 29). The State had failed to “provide one scintilla of evidence that the DeJonge children have suffered for the want of certified teachers” (Slip. Op., pp. 30-31). The Court properly found that the DeJonges were satisfying the state’s interest without certified teachers, and therefore that teacher certification was not essential.
The Supreme Court relied on studies supplied by HSLDA in order to find that teacher certification is not essential for children to be educated. One study specifically cited in the decision by the Supreme Court is a study by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute. Dr. Ray found that there is no positive correlation between the student’s performance and the teacher’s qualifications. The Court also relied on research supplied in HSLDA’s brief which demonstrated that Michigan was the last state still to require teacher certification of home schoolers. This evidence helped them decide that certification was not the least restrictive means of satisfying the state’s interest.
The Court concluded by stating:
We believe that the DeJonges are the best judges of which regulations are the most burdensome and least intrusive upon their religion. To entertain the notion that either this Court or the State has the insight to interpret the DeJonges’ religion more correctly than they is simply an arrogant pretension (Slip. Op., p. 37).
Summarizing its decision, the court said:
We conclude that the historical underpinnings of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the case law in support of it compels the conclusion that the imposition of the certification requirement upon the DeJonges violates the Free Exercise Clause. We so conclude because we find that the certification requirement is not essential to nor is it the least restrictive means of achieving the State’s claimed interest. Thus, we reaffirm the sphere of inviable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people. We hold that the teacher certification requirement is an unconstitutional violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment as applied to families whose religious convictions prohibit the use of certified instructors. Such families, therefore, are exempt from the dictates of the teacher certification requirements (Slip. Op., pp. 38-39).
The positive ruling in the DeJonge case is truly a miracle. In fact, HSLDA was informed that one of the Michigan Supreme Court justices, who had earlier announced he would rule with the three justices who were pro-teacher certification, changed his vote for an unknown reason on the day before the decision was handed down. The DeJonges then had a majority, and home schoolers were given the victory. God moved on the minds and hearts of the justices to do His will. Certainly he deserves all the glory!
The Bennett Case
The ruling in the People v. Bennett case is also very helpful to home schoolers in Michigan, because it guarantees them a statutory due process right previously ignored by the state.
In 1985, John and Sandra Bennett were home schooling their four school-aged children, Scott, Erika, Jason, and Krista. The Bennetts’ home school was supervised by two certified teachers, whom they regularly consulted. However, the Court held that the Bennetts were not using a certified teacher enough. Therefore, they were convicted of “failure to send their children to school.”
It has been argued successfully before various school districts and courts that, according to the statute, home schoolers are entitled to an administrative hearing before any criminal charges can be brought against them. Although many courts have accepted this reasoning in other cases, the Michigan Court of Appeals stubbornly refused to recognize this statutory due process right of home schoolers in the Bennett case. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, reversed Bennett and the Court of Appeals’ circular reasoning, stating on page 33 of the decision:
It does not make sense that the Court of Appeals itself … applied the Private and Parochial School Act criteria in order to say the defendants had no school, and then told defense that because they were not a school, they were not entitled to the Act’s hearing provisions. In fact, they are a school until a hearing produced a determination to the contrary.
The Supreme Court further stated that the department of education has no authority to approve home schools, but only to disapprove them after holding an administrative hearing. The Bennett family’s criminal convictions were overturned because no administrative hearing was held by the state superintendent.
Home schools are now legal schools until an administrative hearing proves that they are not in compliance with the law. If this should happen, home school families have the right to appeal. Because the state does not have the resources or the manpower to conduct hearings all over the state of Michigan, and because appealing the administrative hearing can tie up a case for years, it will be nearly impossible for the state to use an administrative hearing to stop a family from home schooling.
The Clonlara Decision
On the same day that the Michigan Supreme Court handed down the decisions in HSLDA’s DeJonge and Bennett cases, the Court also ruled on a third home schooling case, Clonlara v. State Board of Education.
In Clonlara, the Court upheld the state statute requiring all hours of instruction to be done by a certified teacher. Thankfully, the DeJonge ruling exempts parents who are home schooling for religious reasons from this requirement.
Although the Clonlara case was lost, the Michigan Supreme Court did point out that the compliance procedures for home schooling, written by the department of education and containing such requirements as 900 hours of instruction, are not enforceable by law. HSLDA feels confident that in spite of the adverse ruling in Clonlara, parents who are home schooling for non-religious reasons will still be protected under the third party filing system and under the ruling in Bennett.
A New Era
It has been a long, hard battle that Michigan home schoolers were called to fight, and God has blessed the faithfulness of these courageous families. In one day, the Supreme Court’s ruling in two cases transformed Michigan into one of the best states in which to home school. The ruling in Bennett requires education officials to follow administrative procedure guidelines. Parents will now receive proper notification before any legal action can be taken. And DeJonge is an outstanding victory for home schooling and religious liberty! It is the biggest case that HSLDA and the home-schooling movement have ever won, and it strikes at the core of the education establishment’s assault against home schoolers.
By God’s grace, the Michigan Supreme Court’s rulings on May 25, 1993, comprise a clear vindication of parents’ rights to home school in the state of Michigan!