September 15, 2009

Controversy Over Meaning of “Local”

Home School Legal Defense Association assisted two member families in Dothan at the beginning of the school year when public school officials challenged their children’s enrollment in a church school outside the city limits. Both families received a letter from Dothan City Schools stating that the church school enrollment forms filed with the superintendent were unacceptable because such schools were not “local.”

A church school is defined in Section 16-28-1 of the Alabama Code as including “only such schools as offer instruction in grade K-12, or any combination thereof including the kindergarten, elementary, or secondary level and are operated as a ministry of a local church, group of churches, denomination, and/or association of churches on a non-profit basis which do not receive any state or federal funding.”

The term “local” in Section 16-28-1 is not defined. HSLDA believes the most reasonable interpretation of this statutory language is that the term “local” means that the church, group of churches, denomination, and/or association of churches is located within the State of Alabama. Otherwise, a family residing in a city or county without a church school would be denied the constitutional right to choose a faith-based education for their children. Instead, they would be compelled to enroll their children in public school. Such an infringement upon parental rights and religious freedom was held to be unconstitutional in the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925). In that case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the State of Oregon was prohibited from enforcing a law banning all private education and requiring all children to attend public schools. If all the school districts in Alabama adopted the same policy as that of Dothan City Schools, it would have the same effect as the Oregon law for many families.

HSLDA Senior Counsel Dewitt Black replied to the public school on behalf of the affected families and explained our legal position on this issue. As a result, Dothan City Schools changed its policy and recognized the enrollment of the families’ children in church schools outside the city limits.

For approximately the past 30 years during which parents have been conducting home instruction through enrollment of their children in church schools in Alabama, parents have been complying with the compulsory attendance requirements by enrolling their children in church schools not located within the city or county where they reside. HSLDA expects this tradition to continue, as there is no reason to change an accepted practice that has worked very well for three decades. In any event, HSLDA is prepared to defend any of our member families whose right to enroll their children in a church school anywhere in Alabama is challenged.