Texas families do not have a religious freedom right to home-school absolutely free of any regulation, a state court of appeals ruled last week. The decision is a setback for Michael and Laura McIntyre, who removed their nine children from a private school in order to educate them at home.
Relatives quickly discovered that very little education ever took place. The family ostensibly set aside space in a motorcycle dealership it co-owned with Michael McIntyre’s twin brother, Tracy, as a “classroom.” Tracy soon noticed that the classroom didn’t actually get used for its stated purpose.
From the ruling: “While the children would sing or play instruments, he never saw them reading books or doing arithmetic, nor did he observe any computers or other school equipment.”
Tracy McIntyre later overheard one of the McIntyre children say that “they did not need to do schoolwork because they were going to be raptured.”
The family’s oldest child was so desperate for a real education that she ran away from home in an attempt to enroll herself in high school. Without any academic records, the school didn’t know which grade to place her in; after testing, the 17-year-old was placed in the freshman class, far behind the rest of her age group.
Naturally, the school district intervened – and that’s when the McIntyres called upon the resources of the Religious Right. When confronted with a request for details about their curriculum, the family decided it was being unfairly harassed and requested help from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a Christian legal advocacy organization founded and run by Religious Right figurehead Michael Farris. (Farris is also the founder and chancellor of Patrick Henry College, an unaccredited Evangelical college in Purcellville, Va.).
HSLDA didn’t seem particularly concerned by the McIntyres’ rapture obsession, or by the lack of educational progress demonstrated by their children. As last week’s ruling notes, the group sent a letter to the school district claiming “that the McIntyres were ‘in full compliance’ but that they declined to ‘submit any additional information.’”
Farris, and HSLDA, take the position that parents have an absolute right to homeschool. That’s precisely the argument the court rejected. The ruling points out that the Supreme Court does indeed permit inquiries into home schools.Chief Justice Ann Crawford McClure of the Court of Appeals, Eighth District of Texas in El Paso, wasn’t much persuaded by the family’s religious freedom arguments, either. The family’s attorneys cited Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1971 Supreme Court ruling that determined the Old Order Amish have a constitutional right to educate children only until the eighth grade. According to the McIntyres, that right extends to them as well.Not so, McClure wrote. “The McIntyres have produced no evidence that they are similarly situated to the Old Order Amish in Yoder. They have failed to raise a fact issue that a sincerely held religious belief was substantially burdened.”
She concluded, “They do not have an ‘absolute constitutional right to home school.’”
And she’s correct.
Before I proceed, I’ll disclose a personal interest in the case. I too was home-schooled for most of my education, albeit in Virginia under slightly different laws. My parents submitted me for academic testing, and although they certainly taught me that the Rapture was inevitable, they also expected me to sit at my desk, finish my work and show basic signs of academic progress.
That’s more than the McIntyres did. It’s disturbing that the Religious Right, this time in the form of Farris and HSLDA, rode so quickly to their defense.
And their religious freedom arguments are specious. The government has a compelling interest in making sure that children are educated. That’s a well-established legal fact.
There’s also a well-established legal right to home school. But that right, like all rights, is subject to certain restrictions. Parents do have the right to home school, but they don’t have the right to provide their children with a substandard education or, like the McIntyres, deny their children an education altogether. The law is clear: You can believe Jesus is coming back at midnight if you want. You can even tell your children that it’s a fact.
But you still have to teach them how to read.
A verdict in favor of the McIntyres would have redefined religious freedom in a manner that undermined a child’s right to an education. The Texas appeals court made the right decision.