When a Marine family stationed at Okinawa requested permission for their homeschool group to continue using base facilities, they expected approval to arrive as a matter of routine.

Instead, they spent a year navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth—and battling to overcome religious discrimination.

Ann Baker, whose husband, Steven, is a Marine master gunnery sergeant, contacted Home School Legal Defense Association for help early in 2020.

Ann explained that, as treasurer of Okinawa Christian Home Educators Association (OCHEA), she was helping the board renew the group’s status as a registered private organization with Kadena Air Base—the principal US Air Force installation on the Japanese island.

She expected her organization to be treated like any other private group, but the reply from base officials left her perplexed.

They insisted that OCHEA was in violation of the air force’s non-discrimination policy.

Officials wrote: “In your constitution and bylaws it states that an officer of your organization must be a born-again Christian. The concern was brought to the attention of [our legal department] and they have requested that it is removed … before we can approve it.”

Help for Homeschoolers

Ann explained to HSLDA that anyone can join OCHEA. The group arranges days in the park, field trips, holiday parties, and moms’ nights out for 30 families—including the Bakers, who presently homeschool five children. (Their sixth, and oldest, has graduated.)

But because leadership wants the group to express the spirit and tenets of Christianity in the way it serves members, officers are required to assent to a statement of faith.

Senior Counsel Darren Jones, who also works as director of HSLDA’s group services, agreed to help.

“There were two important principles at stake that made me eager to get involved,” Jones said. “First of all, we urge our families to connect with homeschool groups as a source of encouragement and shared resources. So we don’t like it when these types of organizations encounter unfair obstacles.”

He added, “Then there’s the minor fact that this private group’s constitutional rights were being violated!”

Darren wrote a letter to officials at the base in March, expressing concerns that OCHEA was being treated unfairly.

Moving Forward

The advocacy seemed to help, as Ann later reported that the group was making progress toward getting its registration renewed. As requested by base officials, OCHEA asked a chaplain to write a letter vouching for the group, and group leaders looked into making sure they all had undergone background checks.

Despite these measures, Ann received word in August that OCHEA would not be permitted to use base facilities—because the group retained religious requirements for leaders in its bylaws.

Ann refused to give up. She contacted the base inspector general and the equal opportunity office.

Meanwhile, Darren wrote another letter focusing on the group’s constitutional rights.

He explained to base officials: “The First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause protects the right of expressive associations, like OCHEA, to select their members and leaders based upon their adherence to each individual organization’s beliefs. As the Supreme Court reiterated almost a decade ago, ‘the ability of like-minded individuals to associate for the purpose of expressing commonly held views may not be curtailed.’ ”    

Finally, in late January, Ann learned that OCHEA was approved to meet in base facilities.

Continued Encouragement

She explained that although the group had been meeting regularly during the renewal process, gaining approval opens up several benefits.

As a recognized private organization, OCHEA families have access to facilities on any of the several US military installations on Okinawa.

The group is also able to retain its bank account.

“If we had been forced to dissolve our private organization,” Ann noted recently, “we would have had to close our account and donate any remaining funds, per our constitution and bylaws.”

Instead, OCHEA’s work of encouraging and educating goes on.

Just over the weekend, Ann reported, “we had our annual valentine exchange bowling party where the kids decorate boxes to collect valentines, and there were prizes for the best-decorated boxes. Next week we’re hosting a homeschool paintball day for the older kids, and next month we’ll be hosting an educational concert with the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band.”