A federal lawsuit has been filed by several Christian parents against the state of California, challenging a charter school policy that prohibits the integration of religious materials into homeschool study programs. These parents, whose children are enrolled in the independent study programs offered by Blue Ridge Academy and Visions in Education charter schools, are fighting for their right to incorporate Christian content into their schooling.
In a formal complaint submitted to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, the parents argued that the schools are discriminating against Christians. “These schools discriminate against parents who seek to educate their children in accordance with their faith, even if that faith-based education fully satisfies state educational standards,” read the lawsuit, in part.
“In particular, these schools have restricted parents’ use of funds to purchase curricula and other instructional materials on the basis of religion and refused to accept or award credit for student work samples that derive from faith-based curricula or reflect religious perspectives.”
For example, Carrie Dodson, one of the plaintiffs, tried to use a religious based math and English Language Arts curriculum called “The Good and the Beautiful.” Not only did her school, Visions in Education, reject paying for the curriculum because it was “faith-based,” but her son wasn’t able to get any credit for doing math or English with this curriculum even after Dobson bought it with her own money. Eventually, her son was kicked out of the school for not completing his work with approved curriculum.
Vision Education Principal Brian Albright told Dobson the school was following state policy which is explained on the California Department of Education (CDE) website. Under the Frequently Asked Question section for independent studies, it quotes the California Constitution, Article IX, Section 8:
“No public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school, or any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools; nor shall any sectarian or denominational doctrine be taught, or instruction thereon be permitted, directly or indirectly, in any of the common schools of this State.”
Then the CDE goes on to interpret that to mean, “Therefore, no religious materials may be assigned as a part of independent study, and pupils cannot use religious materials to complete independent study assignments. Attendance cannot be taken and the LEAs cannot claim apportionment credit for work using religious materials, with the following exception: The study of religion—and a comparison of materials from various religions… .”
Many religious parents and the homeschool study charter schools in California get around this interpretation of the state constitution by using a “don’t ask” policy. Parents using faith-based curriculum don’t tell their schools the curriculum they are using, and schools don’t ask. When parents send in samples of their student’s work, the samples they submit don’t have any references to faith-based material or the textbooks being used.
First Liberty Institute is offering legal representation to these parents in conjunction with the law firm King & Spalding LLP which is based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Justin Butterfield said in a statement that the parents “simply want to be able to choose curricula that fits their families’ needs without facing religious discrimination.”
“These families love their charter schools and the opportunities those schools provide for families to educate their children in a way that fits the families’ needs,” he continued.
In the case of David Carson et al. v. A. Pender Makin last year, the U.S. Supreme Court established that Maine couldn’t legally prevent parents from utilizing a state tuition program to enroll their children in religious private schools.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in majority opinion that the Court has “repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.”
“As noted, a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause,” Roberts continued.
Although California does not currently offer tuition assistance programs to parents as in Maine, the decision sends a message to state governments that they cannot treat schools differently because of their religious affiliation. It should logically follow that California parents have the right to use funds to purchase faith-based instructional materials, and faith-based materials should be counted as credit as long as they adhere to state academic standards.
Hopefully, this lawsuit is successful not only in allowing these parents to provide faith-based instruction for their children, but also in setting an important precedent statewide. Parents should never be prevented from directing their children’s education, and the government cannot discriminate against families that want to provide religious instruction.