April 19, 2012

Tuscaloosa County Addresses Issue of “Local” Church

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 necessarily located within the city or county where they reside. Home School Legal Defense Association assisted a member family in Tuscaloosa County earlier this month when public school officials challenged their daughter’s enrollment in a church school outside the county. The family not only received a letter from the attendance officer stating that the church school enrollment form filed earlier with the superintendent was unacceptable, but they also received a Notice of Noncompliance with Alabama Compulsory Attendance Law that threatened criminal prosecution in three days.

A church school is defined in § 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 nonprofit basis which do not receive any state or federal funding.”

The term “local” in § 16-28-1 is not defined. HSLDA believes the most reasonable interpretation of this statutory language is that the term “local” means within the geographical boundaries 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 United States 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 initially expressed by Tuscaloosa County Schools, it would have the same effect as the Oregon law for many families.

HSLDA Senior Counsel Dewitt Black contacted the public school on behalf of our member family and explained our legal position on this issue. As a result, the attendance officer sought guidance from the Alabama State Department of Education, which replied that it was up to each school system to determine what “local” meant. Given this, Tuscaloosa County Schools sent a letter to our member family telling them that the out-of-county church school they had chosen for their daughter was “valid and in compliance with the Code of Alabama.”

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.