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August 5, 2014

Homeschool Mom Jailed

Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly is HSLDA’s director of international relations. Read more >>

Monica O’Connor, an Irish homeschooling mother of five, and her husband Eddie O’Neill, a former secondary school teacher, were found guilty of failing to register their children under the Irish Education (Welfare) Act of 2000. The Act requires parents to send their children to a recognized school or register them for home education.

As a consequence, on July 31, 2014, Monica reportedly began serving a jail sentence of up to 10 days for failing to pay the required fines. The family has been in a long-running dispute with the National Education and Welfare Board (NEWB) that oversees the Irish Home Education “register.”

Until recent years, the Act, controversial and opposed when passed, had not been particularly enforced, and many Irish homeschoolers simply ignored it. HSLDA opposed the creation of the law at the time, but there were too few home educators in Ireland to influence the government.

Stricter Enforcement

However, in recent years the bureaucracy has gathered momentum, resulting in increasing friction between officials and homeschoolers. Although many Irish home educators do register, there are significant numbers who refuse to do so because they object to the Act’s requirements. They, like the O’Neills, point to the Irish Constitution as recognizing their right above and before the statute and say that the statute interferes with their right.

Article 42 of the Irish Constitution says that “the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.”

The Journal reports that before being incarcerated O’Connor stated in a radio interview that Irish law “tramples on the rights of families to the extent where you must apply [to educate your child].” O’Connor also reportedly said that she and her husband had complied with the registration requirements for some 22 foster children whom they had home educated over the years. They argued that because the current court case involved her biological children and not wards of the state, she should not have to do what was, she said, essentially applying for permission to exercise her constitutional rights.

Rights at Issue

Another home educating mother, Claire Thompson, said in a blog that it wasn’t so much the registration that was objected to but having to “apply” for home education.

“It’s not a matter of simply registering,” Thompson wrote. “If it were, many of us would have no problem. It’s the fact that we have to apply to register—i.e., we have to ask their approval to home educate when we don’t need approval or permission. The right to home educate is covered by the constitution. The law is wrongly phrased. You cannot ask for permission for something you have a right to do. Ascertaining the provision that home ed families are making is a separate issue.”

As HSLDA’s international attorney, Mike Donnelly has worked with a number of Irish homeschoolers who conscientiously object to this requirement. He has also met with officials at the NEWB in Ireland. While Donnelly believes their good intentions when officials say they are “supportive” of home education, he does tend to get concerned when he hears bureaucrats say that they are “just trying to do their job”—especially when constitutionally protected freedoms are the issue.

“HSLDA opposed this Education Act in 1999, but I am astounded that a homeschooling mother in the Republic of Ireland could find herself in jail over this,” he said. “Even German courts, who are among the most hostile to home education, have balked in recent years at actually incarcerating parents over similar charges. Ireland has an explicit constitutional protection for home education, and this is an unconscionable judgment. I hope this incident wakes up the Irish Legislature to the concerns shared by many Irish families and that they revise this vague, burdensome and intrusive law.”

Looking to the Constitution

Rodger Eldrige is another longtime Irish home education activist who tweeted that the judge in the O’Neill case made a similar comment during the trial. According to Eldridge, when Mr. O’Neill attempted to raise the constitution’s protection of home education as a defense, the district judge said that he didn’t have jurisdiction to make constitutional determinations, and that it was simply his job to apply the law. He convicted the couple and fined them over $3,000 for not registering the children.

Although many homeschooling families do register, they report that they, too, are concerned about the law and how it is being increasingly enforced. While only a few have risked provoking such a dramatic confrontation by arguing that their constitutional rights supersede the law, HSLDA has worked with other Irish homeschoolers in recent years who objected to registration. Some were at the point of receiving a similar court summons when they decided to leave the country, moving to places like the United Kingdom where homeschooling laws are less restrictive.

Eddie O’Neill and Monica O’Connor are not the only homeschoolers who have been jailed for their convictions. During the battle for homeschooling freedom in the United States many parents were subject to similar pressure. Today in Germany and other places the growing homeschooling movement faces repression from inflexible authorities bent on controlling their citizens by excessive control or prohibition of certain kinds of private education, such as home education.

While government may exercise its authority to regulate education, imposing increasing burdens based on the whim of bureaucrats is a recipe for disaster. It is a public policy catastrophe and tragedy when a parent is sent to jail over homeschooling. It appears that this is the first case of parents being jailed for these convictions in Ireland. We hope the Irish Legislature will review and consider that the regulatory regime they have created is likely at odds with their constitution and the fundamental rights of parents to decide what is best for their children without this kind of undue burden and will take action to change it.

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Read More

More information and the press release from the family can be found at:

The Journal: “Mother-of-six Faces Prison not Paying Fine after Failing to be Assessed for Homeschooling”

Mama’s Hip: “Carlow Home Educating Mother Goes to Prison Today”

Tir na Saor: “Irish Home Educating Family in Court Case”

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