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Parents at odds over children's schooling page 3
Divorced couple at odds over religious exemption

Date published: 4/17/2006


"I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my children are progressing," Kaye said. The children take "unit and chapter tests and end-of-the-year tests" provided by the curricula she uses. "My assessments are based on those tests. They may not be standardized tests, but it doesn't take much to look them over and say, 'OK, you learned that. We can move on.'"

Mark claims their children are victims of the law and wants to fight it in court. He believes the exemption is unconstitutional, in that it denies their children due process and advances religious interests over others.

"I think if people actually knew that there's no oversight over these children, they would be, like, 'Are you joking?'" he said.

Will Shaw, who co-founded the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers in 1993, has lobbied for years to protect religious exemption from legislative assault. He and his wife home-schooled their children under religious exemption.

"It's a philosophical question," Shaw said. "Do parents become morons when their children become school-age?"

While one might presume he would be unsympathetic to Mark's plight, he's not. Shaw thinks Mark has a case.

"Under the religious exemption statute, the law says, 'The school board shall excuse from attendance at school any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school.' That's plural!"

Shaw said the School Board failed to follow procedure if it didn't hear from both parents before granting the exemption.

"Understand, I am a proponent of religious exemption, but I want the [school] boards to properly apply it."

Marci Hamilton, a professor of public law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, specializes in constitutional law and the intersection of church and state. In 1997, she won a landmark case in the Supreme Court that invalidated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. She thinks Virginia's religious exemption statute is unconstitutional and the law should be "void for vagueness."

"States may accommodate religious conduct, but they can't do it any way they want to," Hamilton said. "When just saying you are religious gives you benefits others do not share, that's an unconstitutional favoring of religious beliefs over all others."

She also had strong words for elected officials.

"You have elected officials acting like ostriches," she said. "They are unwilling to tackle any mistakes made by religious individuals and what happens is the child gets sacrificed in the process. Elected representatives have sold out the public good in blind deference to religion."

To reach MELISSA NIX: 540/374-5418
Email: mnix@freelancestar.com

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From the Compulsory Attendance Statute (22.1-254):

A school board shall excuse from attendance at school:

1. Any pupil, who together with his parents, by reason of religious training or belief, is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. For purposes of this subdivision, "bona fide religious training or belief" does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or merely a personal moral code.