Virginia School District Abandons Policy Requiring Homeschooled Children to Explain Their Religious Beliefs January 21, 2015

Virginia School District Abandons Policy Requiring Homeschooled Children to Explain Their Religious Beliefs

Last week, the Goochland County school board in Virginia was hounded by homeschooling parents to back down from a new approach regarding religious exemptions from school attendance and annual testing. Homeschool parents complained that the proposed changes would be a violation of their First Amendment rights, since it would require children over the age of 14 to agree with their parents’ request for a religious exemption and possibly even testify to the school board about why their religious beliefs required them to be exempt from traditional school.

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) objected on the grounds that the change would require homeschooled children to defend their faith, infringing on the principle of separation of church and state.

The proposed shift in policy was prompted by two things: a failed Virginia House bill that would have studied the status of religious exemptions and a growing public awareness of the desire for homeschool reform among the homeschooled alumni community.

It helps to go back to 2013, when the Washington Post ran an article about Josh Powell, a Georgetown University graduate who overcame religious-based educational neglect in Virginia.

The piece highlighted the potential for educational neglect in Virginia for those who are homeschooled (because they had a religious exemption). Few counties in Virginia, if any, appear to actually follow through with the idea behind the statute, which is that students must be ideologically aligned with their parents in order to be granted an exemption from both public school attendance and traditional homeschool monitoring regulations. The law states that the exemption is extended to:

Any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. For purposes of this subdivision, “bona fide religious training or belief” does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code

It’s that phrase “together with his parents” that’s causing consternation among the conservative Christian homeschool community. Many of these parents believe that God has mandated them as the sole authority over their child’s spiritual state. As such, implementing this portion of the law would seem to undermine their God-given role as their child’s sole spiritual leader. Allowing the children to testify independently about their beliefs is seen as a threat to their religious freedom.

Advocates for homeschool reform, largely led by homeschool alumni, have pushed for a study of these religious exemptions in Virginia to see how counties are actually observing this portion of the law.

Last January, a group of homeschool alumni lobbied in Richmond during the General Assembly session to advocate for HJ 92, which would “conduct a study on Virginia’s religious homeschooling exemption and make recommendations to the legislature.”

The bill was shot down, largely due to homeschool parents and HSLDA testifying that this study would be an infringement on their First Amendment rights. HSLDA even brought in Josh’s sister to testify, and she said he was lying about the poor quality of education he received from their parents — even though his journey through remedial math and English classes could clearly be seen by a quick look at his community college transcripts.

Now, a year later, some advocates are still trying to bring about these reforms, which have the potential for eliminating some degree of educational neglect in the name of faith among homeschoolers.

Minors don’t have much protection under the law, especially after Virginia passed a Parental Rights Amendment to the state constitution a few years back (largely due to the work of HSLDA and their sister group ParentalRights.org), which leaves Virginia’s minors legally vulnerable to educational neglect at the hands of their religiously-motivated parents.

Given this general state of affairs, homeschool alumni applauded Goochland’s efforts to be more discerning about awarding religious exemption status to homeschoolers, in hopes that this would provide contact between homeschoolers and those who would be mandatory reporters if abuse appeared to be happening in the home.

The statute for religious exemption in Virginia is confusingly written, putting the final decision on whether a religious conviction is valid on the state, a grey area that could allow for some fuzziness of the division between church and state. But, the reform proposed in Goochland County was within the boundaries of the existing law — and if HSLDA is concerned about a violation of the separation of church and state in Virginia, the statute should be revised and updated to remove the burden of proof from the religious adherents.

My concern with all this (as a homeschool grad) is that the parents are steering the ship for homeschooling’s future, rather than those who have actually been homeschooled and can give input on how this potentially worthwhile educational option can be improved to better serve rising generations. Home education shouldn’t be about catering to parents’ comfort zones: education is about equipping adult citizens of our future. The current dynamic within conservative Christian homeschooling is incredibly short-sighted and myopic with its constant refusal to listen to the voices of homeschool alumni.

(Top image via Shutterstock. Bottom image via R.L. Stollar with credit going to Rebecca Gorman.)

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