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Cover Story
Parental Rights Drama, Act One

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1995 National Christian Home Educators Leadership Conference, Orlando

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C O V E R   S T O R Y

Parental Rights Drama Unfolds

Primarily drafted by Michael Farris and Home School Legal Defense Association attorneys, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act (PRRA) was introduced on June 28, 1995, in the House and the Senate as H.R. 1946 and S. 984. The PRRA affirms the right of parents to control the upbringing and training of their children—rights that have been eroded by conflicting state court decisions.

Home School Legal Defense Association believes that passage of the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act will significantly increase the protection of home schooling freedoms. Too often state courts refuse to hold parental rights as fundamental. The 1993 Michigan Supreme Court's rulings in DeJonge and Bennett clearly illustrate the need for the PRRA. In DeJonge, the Court ruled that teacher certification, as applied to religiously motivated home schooling parents, was unconstitutional. But in the companion Bennett case decided the same day, the Court found that secular home schooling parents suffered no constitutional violation when forced to comply with the certification requirement. The Michigan Supreme Court held that religious freedom was a fundamental right, whereas "parents' rights" were "nonfundamental" in nature.

HSLDA staff have been working hard to promote this important legislation and secure co-sponsors in the House and Senate. The following is a summary of the key events which have taken place during the past several months.

October 24 — Doug Phillips, Director of Federal Issues for the National Center for Home Education, led a group of Congressional Action Program (CAP) volunteers, several National Center staff members, and HSLDA's four interns to Capitol Hill to lobby for the PRRA.

As a result, more than 20 congressmen added their names to the list of PRRA co-sponsors.

October 26, Rayburn House Office Building — After months of work by legislators, home schoolers, and concerned parents, the House Sub-Committee on the Constitution heard testimony on the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act in a hearing room packed with legislative aides, media representatives, and supporters and opponents of the bill. Members of the Committee present for this first round of hearings included Congressman Charles Canady (Chairman R-FL), Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), Bob Inglis (R-SC), Barney Frank (D-MA), Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), and Melvin Watt (D-NC).

The first panel of experts to testify included the primary congressional sponsors of the PRRA—Representatives Steve Largent (R-OK) and Mike Parker (R-MS), and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). Congressman Largent asserted, "The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act is needed because the government is using its coercive force to dictate values, offend the religious and moral beliefs of families, and restrict the freedoms of families to live as they choose."

A skeptical Congressman Watt challenged him, "You think you can clear the fog with eight pages of legislation?"

"This is not a complicated issue," Largent responded, "It is just a shield for parents. This is only a legal recourse for parents to protect their rights as parents."

Senator Grassley contended that Congress has a constitutional responsibility to pass this legislation:

    It is appropriate for Congress to act within its 14th Amendment, Section 5 power to see that liberty rights are properly protected The PRRA accomplishes this goal by clarifying that the proper standard to use in disputes between the government and parents is the highest legal standard available. This standard, known as the 'compelling interest standard' means that before the government can interfere in the parent-child relationship, it must demonstrate that there is a 'compelling' interest to protect-not a good or even very good interest. It must be compelling.

But Congressman Schroeder expressed concern that the PRRA may make it easier for parents to abuse their children with impunity. Representative Parker quickly responded:

    My wife and I have housed over a dozen foster children in our home during our 25 years of marriage. All these children came from homes of parents who did not care for them, with many of them having their parental rights terminated. This legislation will not prohibit the social service agencies from continuing the difficult job they perform daily. Children that are being abused or neglected will hopefully be removed from their uncaring homes immediately. From a personal standpoint, I say to the critics of this bill that my family has invested too much in the protection of children to support legislation that might further harm them. This legislation offers a balance between the rights of parents and the protection of our precious children.

After the sponsors spoke, committee members heard from a second panel consisting of Vicki Rafel, National PTA Board of Directors; Greg Erken, Executive Director, Of the People; Martin Guggenheim, Professor, New York University School of Law; Colleen Pinyan, Coordinator, Office of Public Affairs, The Rutherford Institute; Marilyn Van Derbur, former Miss America; and Michael P. Farris, President, Home School Legal Defense Association.

Not surprisingly, Rafel testified in opposition to the PRRA, stating that the PTA believes

    many entities at the local, state, and federal levels have responsibilities in providing for and protecting children. These individuals and institutions are not just a part of a local community. They are also part of a total system of services and accountability that must be intertwined to provide an optimum environment for all children. Decisions affecting children should be made in a collaborative effort involving all the stakeholders, including parents, educators, health-care givers and governing bodies.

Farris sharply disagreed:

    Government lawyers, government agencies, courts, and the United States military all need to know that this nation believes parents' rights are fundamental. They need to know that parents whose rights are threatened by government intrusions will receive the highest level of legal protection. They need to know that the government cannot run over those parents and decide for itself how children should be raised.

Van Derbur gave an emotional account of her abusive home, urging Congress to defeat the Act. She pleaded with the committee members that someone must "speak for the children [the PRRA would] smother their voices." Congressman Schroeder thanked Van Derbur for "putting a human face on this issue."

The third and final panel of the hearing consisted of academics George W. Dent, Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Law; Barbara Bennett Wodehouse, Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law; and Wade F. Horn, Ph.D., Director, National Fatherhood Initiative.

Committee members asked, What are reasonable corporal punishments? What about medical decisions such as blood transfusions? Should parents really be making these decisions for their children? Wouldn't this intrude on the rights of children?

Another hot issue was federalism. Opponents of the PRRA argue that this legislation is an infringement of state's rights. Congressman Barney Frank chided conservatives, "This is the most blatant augmentation of the federal government I've ever seen."

Michael Farris responded to these concerns:

    I would like to say a word about federalism. I am a staunch believer in the Tenth Amendment. I believe that Congress should only do those things that are explicitly authorized in the Constitution. I am not a fan of implied congressional power. But I believe that Congress has a solemn obligation to do its utmost to discharge all of its explicit constitutional duties. One of those duties, pursuant to section five of the Fourteenth Amendment, is to protect the rights of American citizens when state governments diminish or violate those rights. The right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children has been grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment for nearly seventy-five years.

    I believe that the Supreme Court was absolutely correct in saying that it was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution for the State of Oregon to ban private education in the 1920's. I would submit that if the Supreme Court correctly discharged its duties as a branch of the federal government to protect the rights of American parents when a state went too far, this Congress has the co-equal duty to protect the constitutional liberties of American parents. State courts, state agencies, lower courts, bureaucrats, and lawyers are diminishing the rights of American parents. This bill does not create any federal programs. It does not spend a dime of taxpayer money. It does not create a single administrative position. It simply sets a legal standard. Adoption of this bill will indicate that this Congress believes that parents rights are fundamental, nothing more, nothing less.

November 1 — Michael Farris appeared with Congressman Largent on CNN's Burden of Proof, a program analyzing the legal aspects of current national issues and legislation. Representing the opposition was former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. Mike and Congressman Largent did an outstanding job refuting arguments brought against the PRRA.

December 1 — James Dobson interviewed Congressman Steve Largent and Senator Charles Grassley about the PRRA on the December 1 Focus on the Family radio program. Listeners were encouraged to contact their congressman and senators and urge their co-sponsorship of the PRRA.

December 4 — CAP volunteers visited 80 senate offices, encouraging the senators to co-sponsor the PRRA and to attend the subcommittee hearing.

December 5, Dirksen Senate Office Building — The Senate held sub-committee hearings on the PRRA. The senate subcommittee members are Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) —the PRRA's key sponsor, Mike DeWine (R-OH), Hank Brown (R-CO), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Howell Heflin (D-AL), Russell Feingold (D-WI), and Herbert Kohl (D-WI). Michael Farris, along with several other witnesses from the House hearings testified.

Rep. Steve Largent opened as first witness on behalf of the PRRA.

    "When the government becomes an obstacle or chips away at the freedoms parents rely on to raise their children, our country risks losing that fundamentally important quality that has made our country great—freedom. I introduced the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act to protect and support the backbone of our country—free citizens and free parents."

Rep. Largent urged subcommittee members to take a realistic look at the increasing obstacles parents face today.

"The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act is needed because the government is using its coercive force to dictate values, offend the religious and moral beliefs of families, and restrict the freedoms of families to live as they choose."

Sen. Howell Heflin questioned the PRRA's purpose and expressed concern that it would intrude upon states' rights. "If the Supreme Court has already upheld these rights, I see no need for this Act," he stated.

Rep. Largent responded, "[the PRRA is] consistent with the proper concept of Federalism. While states have the general jurisdiction and authority over education, child welfare, and health care issues, the federal government has authority to protect the rights of its citizens and ensure that states employ their power in a way that respects the rights of American parents."

Opening the second panel of witnesses, Michael Farris reminded subcommittee members that it would be impractical to ask every family to take its case to the Supreme Court. "Parents' rights should be protected at the first court they go to; they should not have to go to great lengths and expense to receive a just ruling." Farris further explained the problem with relying on lower courts without the aid of the legal standard which would be established by the PRRA: "The Supreme Court has failed to use explicit enough language and has failed to take enough parental liberty cases in the past twenty years. Lower state and federal courts, and the countless government agencies just don't seem to understand that parental rights should be accorded this high level of protection."

Sammy Quintana, president-elect of the National School Boards Association, claimed the PRRA is "about making it more difficult for public schools to teach our children. It is about lining the pockets of lawyers and draining the scarce educational resources in our schools. It is about playing politics with our children." Another anti-PRRA witness, Margaret Brinig of the University of Louisville, insisted the Act would hurt children's rights in favor of parental whims. She claimed that the PRRA would harm the state's ability to protect children.

Director of the National Fatherhood Initiative and child psychologist Wade Horn countered, "Some see the declining well-being of children as the rationale for further state intervention in family life. But there is very little evidence that further abdication of authority over children to the state will enhance the well-being of children. Rather, I believe that the declining well-being of children in America is the direct result of the increasing authority the state has obtained over the rearing of children."

Georgia lawyer Chip Angell aptly summed up the issue (and brought down the house several times) with his direct, rhetoric-demolishing testimony. "We must not deny the simple plain fact that parents can parent better than any agency or school. Parents are tired of government intrusion. They don't need busybodies in Washington telling them

Action — Home schoolers need to continue to deliver a steady stream of calls to their congressmen and senators to build support for the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act. This extremely important piece of legislation will likely pass in 1996— if we keep up the momentum.

Please read the list of PRRA co-sponsors. If your senators and representative are not co-sponsors of this legislation, please call today and ask them to take a stand for parents' rights by supporting the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995. If your congressman or senator is a co-sponsor of the PRRA, we encourage you to send a letter of appreciation.