A Massachusetts federal appellate court has refused to overturn a decision that is potentially disastrous to the ability of parents to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs.
As previously reported in this newspaper, last year Parker v. Hurley dismissed a case brought by the parents of two children in Lexington, Mass., public schools. The families claimed that their children’s forced attendance at classes that discussed alternative families violated their rights as parents and also their religious liberty. The lower court found that the First Amendment would not hinder a school system from teaching “anything reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to becoming engaged and productive citizens in our democracy,” even if the teaching at issue, to 5- and 6-year-old children, violated the deeply held beliefs of the parents who entrusted their children to the system.
The parents appealed. As has become routine in these types of cases, the anti-religious arguments were presented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and prominent law firms filed briefs as amici curiae (friend of the court), while the parents were represented by smaller firms. The appellate court affirmed the lower court, ruling that the parents’ rights were not violated even though “we accept as true the plaintiffs’ assertion that their sincerely held religious beliefs were deeply offended.”
To reach that conclusion, the court first found the plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion was not compromised by the public schools system forcing their children into classes that offended their beliefs. The court went on to examine numerous religious-liberty precedents, and found that the parents’ claim could not be considered of constitutional validity. In particular, the court found that unlike Amish parents in a 1972 case called Yoder v. Wisconsin, which relieved Amish families of sending their children to state schools after eighth grade, here the parents were not enough of a “religious subgroup” to qualify for constitutional protection.
Several aspects of the court’s conclusions are worth further attention, as they illustrate the contemporary hostile attitude toward religious beliefs in favor of all-encompassing state power. First, the court opined that only if the parent could prove that the objectionable material would “automatically and irreversibly” prevent them from raising their children in accordance with their religious beliefs could they prevail. This is obviously an insurmountable burden, and one that may be evident only after years of indoctrination by public schools. Requiring religious groups to be Amish in order to receive constitutional rights as parents should be an unacceptable standard.
Second, while the court may be correct that parents cannot have an unlimited constitutional right to interfere with the school curriculum, that conclusion does not end the analysis. Declaring such a right may make the school system unworkable, as every parent becomes de facto school principal. However, the court displays a curious blindness in the kinds of subjects being taught in the public schools. It notes in its opinion that Massachusetts has a detailed curriculum, from grade school through high schools, covering subjects such as family, diversity and sexuality. Not only do such topics increase the possibility that some families may find them objectionable, they also raise the possibility of people or groups using the school for ideological purposes rather than instruction. Indeed, here the parents alleged (and the court did not dispute) that the objectionable materials were inserted into the curriculum at the behest of such groups. Even if not true in this instance, that real possibility must be taken into account in the analysis of parental rights.
Nor do parents have the level of influence the court seems to believe on school governance. While public schools are still largely local, enormous bureaucracies have sprung up to operate public schools, and so compromises that parents might strike with local community schools are increasingly unlikely, if not impossible. Yet, parents are largely foreclosed from challenging that curriculum, even for their own children. The parents here did not want to change the curriculum for other parents, but only to protect their own from what they saw as harmful influences.
The court also acknowledges but glosses over the question of the children’s age. The Supreme Court has ruled that public schools cannot be seen to have “endorsed” religion, for example by offering prayers at a commencement ceremony, in part because of the fear that such action may psychologically taint or influence children. Yet here, the court notes that the “impressionability of young school children” is relevant when analyzing constitutional claims, and even holds that with one of the children, a book was read to the class for the express purpose of influencing the children’s beliefs, contrary to those of the parent.
But the court does not draw the obvious conclusion: that the curriculum offered here has the same potential for damaging parents’ ability to control the upbringing of their children as those religious activities prohibited by the Supreme Court.
As did the lower court, the opinion implied that the best solution for the parents might be a legislative one, for example, by expanding the grounds on which a parent can “opt out” of certain curricular standards. However, this opinion, by disdaining the ability of parents to raise their children, will provide no comfort to parents seeking change through the political process.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow
of the Chesterton Institute
at Seton Hall University.