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Parental Rights in Education

The ACLJ fights to protect parents' constitutional right to direct the moral and educational upbringing of their children. Because so many parents do not have any option other than to send their children to the public schools, it is critical that parents know and understand their constitutional rights regarding public education.
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The Supreme Court has time and again affirmed the well established principle that parents possess a right to control the upbringing of their children: “The custody, care and nurture of the child resides first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). This fundamental liberty interest of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court twice in just the last fifteen years. See Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997); Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000). The general notion of parental rights is rooted in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, a number of additional constitutional as well as statutory provisions lend further support to parental rights in general, and a parent's right to opt his or her child out of objectionable classroom activities in particular.

In 1978, Congress enacted the Protection of Pupil Rights Act (“PPRA”), The PPRA permits parents to inspect classroom materials and requires parental consent before psychiatric or psychological testing or treatment can be administered to students. This Act provides only limited protection, however, because it only applies to programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Several states have passed “opt-out” statutes that protect a parent’s right to protect their child from objectionable content found in sex or health education courses. See, e.g., N.Y. Educ. Law § 3204(5) (McKinney 1992)(permitting religiously motivated parents to have their children excused from “the study of health and hygiene”); N.J. Ann. Stat. § 18A: 35-4.7 (West 1989)(same); Cal. Educ. Code § 51240 (West 1996) (same). But, not all states have such protections, and “opt-out” laws vary from state to state.

A parent's right to remove a child from objectionable classroom instruction and activity is grounded in three constitutional provisions: the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause and the First Amendment Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. Which provision offers the strongest support for a parental challenge will vary slightly depending on the particular scenario. The potential scenarios faced by Christian parents typically fall into two basic categories—those that involve some degree of student coercion, and those that involve mere “exposure” to objectionable or offensive ideas. An example of the first scenario would be a school curriculum requiring students to participate in mock homosexual wedding ceremonies. Such an activity can be challenged on First Amendment free speech grounds because such a compulsory ritual forces children to endorse speech to which they are morally opposed. Although some lower courts have been unreceptive to recent parental challenges to school curricula, the constitutional underpinnings of parental rights in this area are well established. The First Amendment Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, combined with the Fourteenth Amendment's fundamental liberty interest of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children, form a strong foundation upon which parents can assert their right to opt their children out of objectionable school material or activities. The higher the degree of coercion on students to participate in, or otherwise endorse the classroom activity, the stronger the constitutional argument in favor of a parental opt-out right.

By contrast, a situation involving mere exposure to offensive materials would be better challenged by initiating and maintaining an open dialogue with school administrators on this issue. Parents can serve as a grassroots catalyst for educational reform and should also consider running for school board and becoming involved in school policy decision making. In taking such affirmative steps at the local level, parents can influence school curriculum and encourage the adoption of opt-out policies.

For information on laws regarding parental rights related to home schooling, visit

Are there any legal resources available to help a parent confront a teacher who is requiring a student to participate in yoga and meditation?

The answer to your second question is yes, there are legal resources available. Here, you Basically have a teacher teaching not about religion, but actually engaging in an exercise of religion and requiring class participation. At a minimum, she should not require participation, because yoga is a religious exercise, and you're not allowed to require the practice of religious exercises in public schools. Of course, if a teacher wore a cross to school, the ACLU and others would be making a case about it. But here, you've got a religious exercise going on in the school. Student participation is required, and it should not be. I think you need to go speak with the teacher. Do it in a polite way, but explain that you don't want your daughter involved in the religious exercises here. The school's not supposed to be doing this. They can certainly teach about religion-that is, the religious beliefs held by people of different faiths. But to have them actually practice it is a different issue. And the school is incorrect to allow it. I would explain to the teacher that this is not something the school had the right to do. It was a mistake, and your daughter-and any others in the class who didn't want to participate- should not be required to participate. And this type of teaching should really not be done in the class that way.

Can I read a short Bible story to my son's third grade class during a parents' reading time?

Here's what I would do: I would tell them that you're coming in for the reading time, and that you're going to read a story from the Bible. That's usually not a problem. There are some school districts that may object, but religious books or Bible stories are not to be treated as if they're pornographic in nature and can't be read in a public school classroom. Now, it may need to be the student's choice. There are actually Department of Education guidelines on this that are quite helpful. For example, in one situation, we received a call from a woman whose granddaughter - also in the third grade - was in effect "censored" by her teacher. The teacher had invited the students to bring in a video from home that they could watch together in class, and when the girl brought in a VeggieTales video, the teacher wouldn't allow it. The same law that applied in that case also applies here: the public school is not a religious free zone. So the first thing to do is to tell the school officials what you are going to do - that you're going to read a nice Bible story. Tell them that it will be quick, and within the guidelines of whatever the school says, but tell them you're doing this so that they're not caught unaware or surprised.

Is it legal for the sponsors of a city basketball league to require students to attend a seminar, unrelated to basketball, and then forbid parents from attending with their children?

I can't believe in this day and time, especially in light of everything that's happening in our culture, that they wouldn't allow parents to attend. Parents have legitimate concerns for the safety and well-being of their children, and the idea that there would be a roadblock put in the way so that parents cannot simply be there as a support for their own children is truly tragic. I think they've got it wrong. This is a complete violation, in my view, of parental rights and parental authority. You're not checking these kids' safety at the door of the gym when they go in there; you still are their parent, and you have a say-so in the situation. I think where you're concerned for the safety of your children, the first thing to do is talk to the individuals directly involved - and in this case that would be the coaches in the basketball league. Then take the next step if necessary - go to the facility management and ask, "Why are you allowing this to happen?" I think you're going to get it resolved that way; I can't imagine the city league wanting to take the legal responsibility for the well being of these children. I think that would truly be a dangerous thing to do. So, they've simply got it wrong here, and we just need to get it corrected.

Is it legal to have security cameras in schools without parental consent?

The school should have at least notified the parents that they were filming as an added security measure. The cameras are in place strictly for one reason-security. The school and the government both have what's called a compelling interest in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens and that would include students, even in a private school. Now, the private school is not mandated to provide this kind of security, but they can do it legally as a security measure. Because of the difficulties that schools have had over the last several years-with the shootings at Columbine and other schools-the schools are increasing their security measures. Having said that, the school should still notify the parents. The reality is, we're seeing new security measures are going in all over Washington: near the monuments; near the main streets; on Pennsylvania Avenue. We have to have more security given the nature of the threat the country is currently under. These new security laws do not violate anyone's civil liberties; they're constitutional, and they're working.