“The school is indoctrinating my child….”

This week we’ve been examining Circuit Court cases that address parental rights that clash with school policy or curriculum decisions.  Today’s case is particularly relevant to the debates swirling around our schools in 2022. 

What Happened?  Jacob’s parents were deeply disturbed and offended when they read the picture book he brought home from kindergarten in his “Diversity Book Bag.”  The book, Who’s In a  Family?, depicted single-parent families, an extended family, interracial families, animal families, a family without children and a family with two dads and one with two moms. The book never mentioned marriage and ended with this  Q and A: “Who’s in a family?  The people who love you the most!”

Joey was a second grader whose parents were upset about King and King, a book that the teacher read to the students.  It was about a prince whose mother wanted him to get married.  The prince rejected several princesses and then…you guessed it…fell in love with another prince.  The book depicts the wedding of the two princes and their kiss.  It’s relevant to point out that this happened in 2006.  Same sex marriage was not approved nationwide until 2015, but it was already legal in Massachusetts where this case took place.

Both sets of parents held the view that homosexuality was a violation of God’s laws. No one doubted their sincerity or the strength of their beliefs. They felt that the public school was undermining the values and beliefs they were trying to instill in their children. They believed that the school was not only pushing a pro-gay agenda, but also instilling the belief that people who held opposing views were hateful and bigoted.

Sound like something you might hear in your district?   I thought so.

The parents were not seeking to ban these books or prescribe the curriculum. Their request was more limited and reasonable. They just wanted to be given notice and an opportunity to have their children opted out of reading such books. The school refused to do that.

What Did the Court Do?  The court ruled against the parents, concluding that they had not established any constitutional violations. It’s a long and scholarly opinion.  To emphasize the point I want to make in today’s Daily Dawg I’m just going to quote a concluding paragraph:

We do not suggest that the school’s choice of books for young students has not deeply offended the plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs.  If the school system has been insufficiently sensitive to such religious beliefs, the plaintiffs may seek recourse to the normal political processes for change in the town and state. They are not entitled to a federal judicial remedy under the U.S. Constitution.

I take that to read: “We’re not going to help you. Why don’t you run for the school board?”

What Can We Learn?  Parents like the plaintiffs in this Massachusetts case have done exactly what this court suggested. They have sought recourse via the normal political processes, and they have been very effective.  This is why we see Governor Abbott touting his support for parental rights in his campaign for reelection.  This is why Florida has passed a law restricting the discussion of certain sensitive issues in the early grades.  This is why we see people being elected to school boards who want to scrub the library of any offensive materials.

This week the Daily Dawg has cited four Circuit Court cases about parental rights, all of which were decided in favor of the school and against the parents.  Importantly, all of those decisions are based on the U.S. Constitution.  The Constitution affords parents certain rights with regard to their children’s education, but those rights are decidedly limited.   Statutes, however, can be and are much more expansive.  This is particularly true in Texas where Chapter 26 of the Education Code enumerates many parental rights designed to ensure transparency and partnership. If parent advocates want to make Big Points, they will continue to pursue constitutional claims, hoping that our conservative judiciary will see things differently. But if they just want to affect change, they will focus less on the constitution and more on the Texas Education Code. 

Today’s case is Parker v. Hurley, decided by the 1st Circuit on December 31, 2008. It’s cited at 514 F.3d 87. 


Got a question or comment for the Dawg?  Let me hear from you at jwalsh@wabsa.com