Devious Device: Religious Right Again Pushes ‘Parental Rights’ Amendment

Rep. Franks is surely hoping that the third time is the charm, but no matter how you look at it, the PRA still isn’t very charming.

The Religious Right and its allies are nothing if not persistent. They’re also not very original. 

Today, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee is discussing a proposed constitutional amendment dealing with parental rights.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the subcommittee and friend of the Religious Right, seems pretty harmless at first glance -- like any reasonably clever scheme. The proposal has only three short points, one of which is that “the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right” that all parents have.

The so-called “Parental Rights Amendment” (PRA) was first introduced in the mid 1990s. Supporters portrayed it as an effort to make sure that parents would have the right to educate and raise their children as they saw fit. Despite a major effort, the proposal quickly flamed out.

The Religious Right and its allies dug up the dead proposal in early 2009, but it didn’t go anywhere that time, either. Franks is surely hoping that the third time is the charm, but no matter how you look at it, the PRA still isn’t very charming.

The PRA doesn’t get any less threatening with age because critics have said that it could still open the door to school voucher plans that subsidize religion. The theory goes that states would be required to pay for private school tuition to help parents exercise their “constitutional right” to oversee the education of their children, which is exactly what the Religious Right wants.

The amendment could also create problems in the public schools. Parents could use it to demand modifications to curriculum or to insist that their children be excused from instruction they don’t like. Creationists, for example, could demand their children be excused from biology courses.

Child-welfare advocates also say the amendment could make it harder to prosecute cases of child abuse.

Americans United has pointed out that the Supreme Court already ruled that parents have the right to direct their children’s education in a 1925 case called Pierce v. Society of Sisters. A more recent case, Troxel v. Granville, invalidated a Washington state law guaranteeing grandparents visitation rights with their grandchildren, leaving such questions firmly in the hands of parents.

Given all that, it seems the PRA isn't really about “parental rights” at all. As my colleague Rob Boston said in 2009, this is actually about you being forced to pay for someone else’s decision to patronize a private religious school or to engage in home-schooling. It’s also an attempt to give fundamentalist Christians a powerful new weapon with which to harass public schools.

Let’s hope the latest PRA crusade will be the third and final strike for this highly flawed concept.