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Farewell, Mike! An Interview with Mike Farris

March 6–10, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Programs 6–10

After three decades of faithful service to the homeschool community, HSLDA Chairman Mike Farris is changing careers. Tune in to this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat as he chats with your host, Mike Smith, in a final farewell program.

“We have a foundation of freedom right now that is essentially [in] pretty good shape in this country, and we’ve got to make sure that that is maintained.”—Mike Farris

This Week’s Offer

Want to learn more about Mike Farris’s retirement from HSLDA and his transition to Alliance Defending Freedom? Follow the link to watch a message from Mike and read his letter to HSLDA members and friends.

After three decades of faithful service to the homeschool community, HSLDA Chairman Mike Farris is changing careers. Tune in to this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat as he chats with your host, Mike Smith, in a final farewell program.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by my co-host here on Homeschool Heartbeat, Mike Farris. He’s got some great news to share with us. What’s the news, Mike?

Farewell, Mike! [0:26]

Mike Farris: The big news is I am changing careers. I have been asked by the board of Alliance Defending Freedom to become their new CEO and general counsel, and I’ve accepted. This was a long, prayer-filled process—took several months—but Vickie and I concluded that this was God’s will for this season of my life, and so we’re very excited about it.

And it’s bittersweet in the sense of having to change—I wish I could continue to do what I’m doing in some respects and do this, but that’s just not physically possible. And so we believe this is God’s call for our lives for this season, and we’re looking forward to doing more things, different things, expanded things for the work of the Lord in this new venue.

Mike’s first job interview—at 65 [0:15]

Smith: Mike, I heard that interviewing with ADF was actually your first actual job interview. Can you tell us about that?

Farris: When I was approached by an executive search firm to apply for the job of CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, I realized when I eventually got called in for an interview: this is my first job interview of my entire life! At least, that I can remember.

My very first job was working for B&B Fancy Food Distributors. I was like 14 or 15 years old, and a guy at our church just came up to me and said, “Mike, I need a stock boy, would you like to be a stock boy?” “Ok.” He knew me, so the interview had taken place over the last 7 years in effect.

And my first law job, the interview went exactly like this, word for word: I called up a man named Ray Eberly—a local Christian lawyer—and said, “Mr. Eberly, I’m Mike Farris. I started a Bible study here at Gonzaga law school and [I was] wondering if you’d come speak to our Bible study.” He goes, “Oh, sure. I heard about your Bible study. Would you like a job?” And I said, “Sure, I’d like a job. Yeah!” And that was it, that was the entire job interview. That doesn’t count as a job interview.

And so [when] the LaHayes came to me and offered me a job—I didn’t interview for it.

And so every job I’ve ever had in my life—at least the ones I can remember—either I started the organization [and] effectively hired myself, or somebody just came up to me and just, because they knew me, offered me the job. And so when I went through a thorough interviewing process, it was a very new thing for me. And I probably set some kind of a record for “first job interview of your life at 65 years old.” So that’s the story.

“We are smarter than 6-year-olds” [2:53]

Smith: Mike, how did you and Vickie get into homeschooling?

Farris: Both of us learned about homeschooling from Dr. Raymond Moore. Vickie heard him on Focus on the Family, and a couple of weeks later—I knew nothing about her listening to it and becoming interested in homeschooling—I met him. [I] was working for Tim and Bev LaHaye at the time, and we were in Utah filming their television program and they had a program with Dr. Moore about homeschooling.

And he cornered me and gave me his best 20-minute pitch about why we should homeschool our kids. And I thought it was a great idea and went home to talk to Vickie about it. And she was praying for the courage to tell me that she wanted to homeschool our kids.

[So the decision to homeschool] was mutually reached through very similar sources but on somewhat different paths. We just both believed that God was directing us because of the simple concept: kids get their values from the people that they spend the majority of their time with. If you spend the majority of your time with your peers, you get your values from your peers. [If you spend a] majority of time with parents, family, you get your values from your parents and your family. And we already saw that becoming true in our daughter Christy, who was 6 at the time—what she was experiencing in the Christian school. And we didn’t like everything she was learning from her 6-year-old peers, and we just had the audacity to believe that we were smarter than 6-year-olds, and that Christy would be better off getting her values from us.

What really matters [4:22]

Smith: Mike, what are some of your favorite memories from homeschooling your kids?

Farris: My daughter Jessica was 5, I’m going to guess. She wrote me a little note that says, “Love love love. Dear dad, I love you. Love, Jessica.” And I said, “Jessica, you must really love me!” She said, “It’s the only word I know how to spell.” So that’s a favorite memory.

We went to speak at the Hawaii homeschool conference in 1991. And the Alejados, who run the conference, arranged for us to rent this little tiny but really cool beach house right on the north shore of Oahu, kind of on a little private bay called Cavela Bay. And we cashed in all of our vacation time and just stayed at this house for a month and we did “oceanography” classes on the beach. Our kids still remember that. We were pretending we were doing science, but we were getting tans.

Smith: Now you and Vickie have finished homeschooling all of your 10 kids, and you’ve probably learned not to sweat the small stuff. So as you think back, what would be “small stuff” that you would tell parents not to really worry about?

Farris: Well, I think that the best curriculum advice I could give to parents that would help them not get overly concerned about inappropriate details—there are two aspects of home education that need to be mastered [in] K–12: language and numbers. Everything else is exposure. You’re not going to master American history. You’re not going to master world history. You’re not going to master science. You’re not going to master foreign language or anything else in the K–12 sequence. You’re going to give your kids exposure. And exposure’s good, and exposure to a broad range of things is good. But you don’t have to master all this stuff. And so as long as people understand those things, you can avoid a lot of sleepless nights about some of the details of that.

The other thing I would say to not sweat the small stuff is: pick choices that are easy on Mom. And there are so many cool curriculum programs available now. When we started, there was only one that would sell to homeschoolers, and that was Bob Jones. They were the only ones who would sell to us, originally. But, you know, there’s so many choices today—fabulous ones. But don’t sweat what’s, you know—“This is a really wonderful program for my child but it will stress my life out.” Don’t do that. Pick one that is workable and functional for your family and does a good job for your kids, because almost all of them will do a good job for your kids.

The early days [7:16]

Smith: So let’s go back to the beginning of HSLDA. What gave you the idea to start HSLDA way back in 1983?

Farris: Well, after we started homeschooling, the word got out, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, that this lawyer with a fair amount of religious freedom and First Amendment experience was homeschooling. And so I started getting calls from people seeking advice and help on homeschool cases. And I figured out really quickly, this is a great way to go broke, because when people want a Christian lawyer, they want a free lawyer! And so I knew that this just wasn’t going to be a successful venture unless there was a funding mechanism where everybody who had an interest in the outcome of these test cases would be a part of it. And so, you know, the organizing principle was kind of much like a union—if the officials harm any member of a union, the whole union comes to the defense. And so homeschooling could become that kind of an organized activity.

And so I started HSLDA to provide a low-cost way to give people the help that they needed, from people who really knew what they were doing.

Smith: Mike, back when you and your wife started homeschooling, what did the homeschool movement look like—and what were your biggest challenges and threats?

Farris: Well, the homeschool movement at that point in time, if we could have all gotten together, would have fit in my family’s 15-passenger van. The movement was extremely small. We only knew one other family in Washington state that was homeschooling at the time.

Shortly, we learned of another 4 or 5, but it was very small, very secretive, very much underground, because the officials thought homeschooling was illegal everywhere in the country. Now, we thought the Constitution of the United States reached a different conclusion on that, but the dominant view of the officials was, “You can’t do this.”

Overcoming initial obstacles [9:15]

Smith: So how have those obstacles been overcome?

Farris: Wow, overcoming those initial obstacles didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t come without a lot of prayer, a lot of effort, a lot of sacrifice by a lot of people, and the answer to this question is a tapestry of many threads being woven from many different sources. I wove some of those threads, HSLDA as a whole wove many of those threads, but there were a lot of other people as well. State organizations, other leaders, writers, thinkers, families, people like Dr. [James] Dobson, who really helped homeschooling get a big promotional start by featuring it regularly on his radio program for a long time.

But from a societal perspective, which is very important in the long run, families homeschooling their kids knew other families, and when families saw the kids that were being homeschooled, the general reaction was, “Those are great kids!”—either “I would like my kids to be like that,” or at least, “They’re doing fine.” You know, so the view that homeschooling is an acceptable thing came from families being open about who they were, at least to some people, and that word-of-mouth spreading. That was a big part of it.

Of course, establishing the legal part of it, HSLDA was at the center of all of that. We had lots of cases and lots of fights and lots of contacts, lots of people worrying about these things, [and] yet the Lord brought us through them all and eventually came out the other side.

Smith: Mike, of all the cases that you’ve worked on, which ones did the most to secure homeschool freedom?

Farris: There were two or three cases that were highly significant in the victory for homeschool freedom. The DeJonge case in Michigan is probably the pinnacle of it. And [in] that case, in a very thorough opinion, the court held that it was a violation of a blend of religious freedom and parental rights to require parents to be certified teachers, because the kids in that case—the DeJonge children—were learning more than adequately without the use of certified teachers. And the breadth of the decision, the level of the court that issued it, and the centrality of that issue probably puts that case at the very top of the homeschool world.

The most recent threat was 5 or 6 [or] 7 years ago now in California, where the California Court of Appeals, in the case that we were not involved in at all—nobody knew about it—just one family and some public defenders, had ruled that homeschooling was illegal in California.

And after that ruling came out publicly, Jim Mason and I ghostwrote a motion for rehearing for the public defenders who were defending the family. Jim wrote the statutory portions of the brief and I wrote the constitutional portions. And to everybody’s surprise the court said, “Okay, we’ll give you another hearing.” And in that one I did the oral argument for the constitutional issues, other people did other facets of the oral argument, it was an extraordinary grant of time—it was about two hours per side, it was the longest appellate hearing I’ve ever been in in my life—and the court then reversed itself and ruled that homeschooling was indeed legal and protected in California. And so that was a great victory in and of itself.

Smith: Early on, Mike, was there ever a time when you were waiting for someone else to take up the mantle to defend homeschool freedom, or was that always a burden you felt?

Farris: I never thought this was a mantle that I would give away. But it was a mantle that I would share. I wanted other people to be recognized in the movement as much as I was, and that people would not just think, “This is Mike Farris’s organization,” but they would think [of] Mike Farris and Chris Klicka and Mike Smith and so on.

But God had really clearly called me to do that, and even though other things came along in my life for a long time, I never thought that I would do anything other than share the mantle. Give it away? Nah, I didn’t think about that for a long, long, long time.

The future of homeschool freedom [13:46]

Smith: Mike, as we look towards the future, what’s your biggest wish for the future of educational freedom?

Farris: My biggest wish for homeschool freedom, and educational freedom in the long run, is that we don’t go backwards. There are people that want to severely curtail the freedom that we’ve won. Educational choice is an interesting idea and would have some impact, but it’s not nearly as important as just maintaining our freedom. You know, there [are] a few states where some improvement of freedom is necessary, and every state you’ve got to make sure that the freedom is implemented correctly the way that the freedom’s been won, because there’ll be people who always try to do all that. Having said that, however, we have a foundation of freedom right now that is essentially [in] pretty good shape in this country, and we’ve got to make sure that that is maintained.

Internationally, my hope for homeschool freedom is that the level of freedom that American homeschoolers enjoy becomes a tangible reality throughout the world. That’s not the case right now. And so one of the biggest things we can do as a movement is to make sure our brothers and sisters in Germany and Sweden, Switzerland, [and] many other places that are being prosecuted, tormented—that all that stops, and that freedom’s established there too.

Smith: Mike, to wrap up, let’s talk a little bit about Alliance Defending Freedom. What is their mission?

Farris: The mission of Alliance Defending Freedom is to defend and promote religious freedom, the protection of innocent human life, and the sanctity of marriage and the protection of the family. Those are three of the most important zones of our whole area of freedom and our concern, and they’re things that I’ve been interested in and involved with for many, many, many years. And they’re things that really allow me to kind of expand my zone of activity, but I view them as essentially growing out of the same reasons I’ve been at HSLDA. It’s just broader, not different.

And ADF and HSLDA have been partners in almost all, if not all of our homeschool cases that we’ve done in Europe. They have a robust legal team based in Vienna, but they have lawyers in Strassburg and Geneva and Brussells, maybe a couple of other places—I’m still learning the breadth and depth of all that ADF has—and so that partnership, obviously, will continue and will, if anything, become more robust. But I just think that the opportunity to help protect religious freedom in particular, but human life as well, and you know, all the things—marriage and the family—those are issues that are central to all of our lives and I just think that God’s called me to this wider sphere for right now.

Smith: Well Mike, thank you for joining us this week. We’ll miss you here at HSLDA and on Homeschool Heartbeat, but we know that you’re moving on to do bigger and better things for the Lord with ADF. God bless you, brother—and until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Michael Farris, JD, LLMPhoto of Farris

Michael Farris is the Chancellor of Patrick Henry College and Chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He was the founding president of both organizations.

Farris is a constitutional appellate litigator who has served as lead counsel in the United States Supreme Court, eight federal circuit courts, and the appellate courts of 13 states.

He has been a leader on Capitol Hill for over 30 years and is widely known for his leadership on homeschooling, religious freedom, and the preservation of American sovereignty.

At Patrick Henry College, Farris teaches constitutional law and public international law, and coaches PHC’s Moot Court team, which has won seven national championships.

A prolific author, Farris has received a number of awards, including the Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship by the Heritage Foundation and recognition as one of the “Top 100 Faces in Education for the 20th Century” by Education Week magazine.

Mike and Vickie Farris have ten children and 18 grandchildren.

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