How far do parents’ rights extend?

We are sure to hear a steady drumbeat this school year about “parents’ rights” with regard to education.  It has become a major talking point in political campaigns, and is surfacing in litigation as well. This week the Dawg looks back at four Circuit Court cases that address the issue in ways that are likely to arise again this school year. We’ll start with a decision from the 6th Circuit in 1987.    

What Happened? A group of parents who described themselves as “born again Christians” sued a Tennessee school district arguing that their children were forced to read books “which teach or inculcate values in violation of their religious beliefs and convictions.”  They asserted that this violated their right to the free exercise of religion and the right to direct the upbringing of their children.

What Did the Court Do?  The court ruled in favor of the school. The children were forced to read things that their parents found objectionable, but they were not required to profess beliefs one way or another.  The court cited a Supreme Court case that emphasized the importance of public schools teaching values, including “tolerance of divergent political and religious views.”  Mrs. Frost, who was one of the plaintiffs, was proudly intolerant:

Mrs. Frost [one of the plaintiffs] said “We cannot be tolerant in that we accept other religious views on an equal basis with ours.”  While probably not an uncommon view of true believers in any religion, this statement graphically illustrates what is lacking in the plaintiffs’ case.

The “tolerance of divergent….religious views” referred to by the Supreme Court is a civil tolerance, not a religious one. It does not require a person to accept any other religion as the equal of the one to which that person adheres.  It merely requires a recognition that in a pluralistic society we must “live and let live.” 

What Can We Learn?  Parents have the right to direct the upbringing of their children, and to teach and inculcate the religious beliefs they want the children to have. That right does not go so far as to shield their children from ideas, belief systems, political and religious views that the parents disapprove of.  There is a big difference between exposing a child to an idea or belief, and inculcating that idea or belief.  Schools expose students to the big wide world in all its diversity. That’s part of the mission.

This one is Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, decided by the 6th Circuit on August 24, 1987. It can be found at 827 F.2d 1058.


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Tomorrow:  Toolbox Tuesday!!