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December 19, 2014

Improved Homeschool Law Moots Newborn Case

Senior Counsel Jim Mason is a member of HSLDA’s litigation team, which helps homeschool families who are facing legal challenges. He and his wife homeschool.

Home School Legal Defense Association Senior Counsel Jim Mason appeared before a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court of Appeals on April 22, 2014, to urge the court to exempt the Newborn family from Pennsylvania’s home education reporting requirements in Act 169, under the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act (RFPA). However, the passage of House Bill 1013 in October 2014 significantly changed Pennsylvania’s homeschool law, and the Newborns’ case has been dismissed since the issues are no longer relevant.

Initiated several years ago by the Newborns in Westmoreland County, the case had taken a detour through federal court before returning again to state court in 2009. (See the March/April 2009 issue of the Court Report.)

The RFPA provides an exemption from state laws like Act 169 under certain circumstances. Because of their sincere religious beliefs, the Newborns sought an exemption from Act 169’s home education reporting requirements on the ground that the act “compelled conduct or expression which violates a specific tenet of a person’s religious faith.”

Appealing the Case

In 2006, the federal trial court held that Act 169 did not interfere with the Newborns’ ability to homeschool; therefore, they were not entitled to an exemption. When HSLDA appealed the decision, the federal appeals court vacated the trial court decision but still ruled against the Newborns.

The Court of Common Pleas at the state level adopted the federal trial court’s reasoning. It held that, to prevail, the Newborns had to show that Act 169 interfered with or denied their ability to homeschool. But the Newborns had never argued that Pennsylvania’s homeschool law denied their ability to homeschool. Instead, they argued that Act 169’s numerous reporting and oversight requirements compelled them to do things their religion prohibited.

HSLDA appealed to the Commonwealth Court (Pennsylvania’s intermediate court of appeals) on behalf of the Newborns. At the oral argument in April, HSLDA was encouraged by the Commonwealth Court judges demonstrating through their questions that they clearly understood the Newborns’ legal argument. In September the Commonwealth Court ordered the case to be reargued before seven of its judges, but when the state’s new homeschool law went into effect, the court dismissed the case as moot.

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