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June 5, 2006

The Fight for Religious Freedom Continues

After almost two years in federal district court, Home School Legal Defense Association will soon be facing a new front in the defense of the rights of six Pennsylvania families who object to compliance with the restrictive home education law due to their sincere religious convictions. On May 25, 2006, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that Pennsylvania’s homeschooling law does not impose a “substantial burden” on their religious faith.

“The court’s opinion reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of claims made by the families,” said James Mason, Litigation Attorney. “We’re looking forward to appealing to the Third Circuit.”

The Pennsylvania home education law, Act 169, which was passed in 1988 following the HSLDA case Jeffery v. O’Donnell, is the most restrictive homeschool law in the United States. After the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act was passed in 2003, numerous families sought exemption from Act 169 because they believed that God had given them full and exclusive authority for their children’s education. They believe that providing the documentation required by Act 169 to their school districts to review for “appropriate education” violated the jurisdictional boundaries between the state and the family.

While some school districts accepted the notices, several other districts initiated truancy proceedings and social service investigations against the families. In defense of our members, HSLDA filed a total of six cases (later consolidated into one) in federal court, arguing that Act 169 violated the sincere religious convictions of each family involved. In December 2005, however, the court held in a preliminary ruling that the plaintiff families had not shown that the law imposed a substantial burden on their religious freedom.

The school districts HSLDA had sued then filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to close the case and obtain a favorable final decision. Though HSLDA filed a point-by-point rebuttal of the December ruling, the court issued a final decision on May 25, 2006 affirming its previous ruling that the plaintiffs had not alleged a substantial burden.

HSLDA is planning to appeal the district court's decision. “We believe that the Court of Appeals will take a more thorough view of religious freedom than the lower court has,” said Mason.

 Other Resources

Combs, et al, v. Homer-Center School District, et al