March 7, 2008

Lynchburg Retracts Threat to Religious Exemptions

Lynchburg City Public Schools (LCPS) this week backed away from adopting a policy that would have violated state law and interfered with the right of parents to religious exemption from public school attendance.

On February 19, LCPS considered a religious exemption policy that would have required that any child age 14 or older sign a statement indicating that they personally had conscientious religious objections to public school attendance. One school board member opposed the draft because he was troubled by the idea of requiring a child to sign. At the opposite end of the spectrum, another suggested that the policy be changed to require that all children, regardless of age, sign the form. The board tabled the policy until the March 4 meeting. The March 4 agenda included a revision of the draft which required children of any age to sign.

A Home School Legal Defense Association member called us about the situation and asked for help. HSLDA Attorney Scott Woodruff wrote a letter to the board explaining that insisting on the signature of a 14-year-old as to his belief violated state law. This is because Virginia’s religious exemption statute allows for an exemption based on training or belief. In other words, training and belief are separate, equal grounds for the exemption. There is some interesting history behind this.

When Virginia adopted the present religious exemption, it extensively borrowed language from the Federal Selective Service Act. That federal law allows for persons to be exempted from military duty if they have a religious conscientious objection. However, their objections must be based on both training and belief.

When the Virginia Legislature borrowed from the federal act’s language, it made one crucial change. It took out “and” and replaced it with “or” between “training” and “belief.” This showed that the Virginia Legislature wanted our religious exemption to be treated differently in that respect. Whereas a conscientious objector to military service must establish both his training and his belief, a Virginia family only needs to show training or belief.

This crucial change was necessary because while a military conscientious objector is always an adult, school attendance always deals with children. And we do not expect children to have the same level of maturity in their beliefs as adults. In fact, children are under their parents’ direction and supervision in matters of faith, religious instruction, and church participation. If parents have firm religious objections to public school attendance, but children do not, we honor the parents’ wishes if the parents are training their children in the same beliefs that they hold. Lawmakers knew that children of all ages sometimes do not have the same beliefs as their parents, but so long as the parents are training the children in those beliefs, the family is entitled to the exemption.

The LCPS draft was flawed because it did not give parents the option of qualifying for the exemption by showing training. Following receipt of Woodruff’s letter, the board stepped back to reconsider the policy. And at its meeting on March 4, it dropped all demands that children sign any form.