Virginia School Boards and the State’s Religious Exemption

Recent events in Goochland County, Virginia, have pitted religious homeschooling parents against the right of their children to have their religious beliefs heard. In Virginia, parents can homeschool through their local school district, with annual notification and testing or portfolio review, or they can obtain a religious exemption from school attendance. During the 2013-2014 school year, school boards across the state granted 6,381 religious exemptions. Obtaining a religious exemption requires both the student and the parents to have a “bona fide” religious objection to school attendance. Over the past several decades, many school boards have failed to ascertain the religious beliefs of the child when granting religious exemptions, instead considering only those of the parents. But when the school board in Goochland County moved to hear the religious beliefs of the students before granting religious exemptions, the students’ parents objected, and the school board has since backed down.

Goochland County’s new policy would have asked students over age 14 to affirm that they personally have a religious objection to school attendance before granting a religious exemption. A student would be allowed to affirm his or her religious objection to school attendance on paper, or, if necessary, in person. State law requires school boards to excuse from school attendance “any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school.” According to statistics on the Virginia Department of Education website, Goochland County has 41 students with religious exemptions, 9 of whom are in grades 9-12. The school board’s new policy would have allowed these children to voice their religious beliefs themselves.

However, many homeschooling parents in Goochland County opposed the new policy, arguing that their children shouldn’t have to voice their views in order to obtain the exemption. “I don’t believe the school board has the authority nor should they to interfere with families schooling their children this way,” stated homeschooling parent Doug Pruitt. State and national organizations of homeschooling parents organized opposition to Goochland County’s new religious exemption policy and hundreds of homeschooling parents attended the school board meeting on Tuesday, January 13, where Goochland County voted to repeal its new policy and return to only considering the religious beliefs of the parents when granting religious objections. In this way, the homeschooling lobby prevented homeschooled children from having their voices heard.

Goochland County is not alone. In early January 2014, the school board in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, took steps toward changing its religious exemption policy, which had for years considered only the religious views of parents, but a month later it reversed course in the face of opposition from the homeschooling lobby. Other counties, including Botetourt County and Buckingham County, have reviewed their policies in the last year as well, and they too have faced opposition.

Why the interest in changing policies now, specifically? A 2013 Washington Post article followed the story of Josh Powell, a student exempted from school attendance under Virginia’s religious exemption statute and educationally neglected by his parents. Josh recounted begging officials at Buckingham County Public High School to enroll him, but to no avail. While the University of Virginia School of Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic had concluded in a 2012 report on the religious exemption, “7,000 and Counting,” that it was “rare” for school boards to have any contact at all with the students they granted religious exemptions, Josh’s story put a personal face on this failure and highlighted the negative impact inadequate implementation of the statute can have on children.

In December 2013, the Virginia School Board Association released a policy page recommending “that a school board granting a religious exemption should contact the student and parents annually.” Furthermore, in January 2014 we wrote in support of HJ 92, a resolution which would have called for a study of the implementation of the religious exemption to ensure that children’s voices are heard. While the resolution failed to pass, largely as a result of lobbying from homeschooling parents, some school boards have taken independent action to reevaluate their implementation—only to find themselves opposed by homeschooling parents and the homeschooling lobby.

The Home School Legal Defense Association has maintained that the policy was a violation of state law. In fact, the opposite is true. In footnote 5 of Johnson v. Prince William County School Board (1991), the Virginia Supreme Court stated that “the emphasis [of the statute] is as much on the religious belief of the ‘pupil’ as it is on the beliefs of the parents.” The following year, the Fairfax Circuit Court applied the Johnson ruling to hold that “when children have had sufficient time and experience to develop religious beliefs of their own, their views should be heard.” The court also mentioned that in 1976 the legislature changed the wording of the religious exemption clause from exempting any child “whose parents conscientiously object [to school]” to exempting any child “who, together with his parents” is conscientiously opposed to school attendance. “Under the present statute the parents’ objection appears to be necessary but by no means sufficient,” the court concluded.

The Virginia courts’ decisions are consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Yoder v. Wisconsin, which held that a state could not punish Amish parents for truancy violations after the 8th grade when the Amish had a bona fide religious objection to secondary education. Several factors were key to the Court’s decision: first, Amish children would still be able to fully function in the Amish community with only an 8th grade education; and second, this was not a case of Amish children wanting to attend public school and being prevented from doing so by their parents. Justice Stewart wrote that the case “in no way involves any questions regarding the right of the children of Amish parents to attend public high schools, or any other institutions of learning, if they wish to do so.” At no point has the Virginia Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court found that a parent could use their religious beliefs to prevent a mature minor from going to school against the minor’s wishes.

At CRHE, we believe that children should have input on the method of education they receive, especially children homeschooled under religious exemptions that allow parents to bypass regular homeschooling requirements. Indeed, parents homeschooling under Virginia’s religious exemption are not legally required to educate their children. We were pleased to see the school board in Goochland County take steps to bring its religious exemption clause in step with the law, but were saddened to see the board cave to the efforts of homeschooling parents to keep their children from being heard.

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