Goochland_School_BoardA school board in Virginia is considering the repeal of a policy that would have forced 14-year-old minors to stand before the school board to be interrogated about their religious beliefs.

The Goochland County policy is aimed at homeschool families that fall under Virginia’s decades-old religious exemption statute, which acknowledges parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children.

The longstanding state statue allows parents to homeschool their children without reporting to the state if they have an objection to attending school outside the home that is based on “bona fide religious training or belief.”

The Goochland school board decided that not only do parents have to submit the basis for their religious beliefs for choosing to homeschool their children, but that it could require children, minors, between the ages of 14 and 18 to appear before the school board and undergo an inquisition about their own independent basis for their religious beliefs.

As the local CBS affiliate reports:

A policy approved by the Goochland County School Board in 2013 has several parents who home school their children upset.

The policy requires children ages 14 and up who want to be home schooled to provide a statement about their religious beliefs to the school system.

As part of that, the board reserves the right to bring the child and his or her parent in for a hearing.

To be clear this policy has no basis in Virginia law. In fact the policy directly violates Virginia’s religious freedom statutes and the U.S. Constitution.  In addition, it directly violates a Virginia statute, also passed in 2013, that clearly and emphatically provides: “A parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent's child.”

Virginia’s religious exemption statute is simple: “A school board shall excuse from attendance at school [a]ny pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school.”  It requires the school board to grant a religious exemption to families who request it based on their religious beliefs.

The school board took a very simple statute that protects religious freedom (in fact Virginia has some of the best homeschool and religious liberty statutes in the country) and turned it on its head, claiming confusion and an need to impose draconian requirements on parents and their minor children.

No child (and that’s what a 14 year old is) should ever be forced to stand before a government body to give account for their faith.  It is an unbelievable abuse of power and violation of human rights to think that a school board could force a child to essentially testify about his or her religious beliefs and undercuts the very purpose for which Virginia’s religious exemption statute was enacted.

This is not the first school board, nor will it be the last, to assert that it has the power to determine how parents should raise their children and balk at the idea that Virginia has codified parents’ rights to educate their children and “train” them in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Over 25 years ago, there was another school board, in the neighboring Henrico County, which refused to recognize Virginia’s religious exemption statute.  That school board threatened to imprison and take away one family’s children who merely wished to exercise their God-given right to train and educate their children.

Eventually (after a lawyer got involved), Henrico County relented and granted my parents’ religious exemption.  I was the first student granted religious exemption in Henrico and was homeschool K – 12.  It was this protracted battle with the county that served as a basis to spur me on to law school years later and drives me each morning when I wake up and as I fight to defend religious liberty throughout the day.

Freedom is precious and must be viciously guarded.

And thankfully the residents of Goochland County are standing up against this draconian regulation.

Hundreds of individuals, including family and friends of mine, turned out for last night’s Goochland County School Board meeting.  The opinion of the people was overwhelming: repeal the policy.

While I was not able to attend the meeting, I did watch via web cast.  The meeting was standing room only and many individuals couldn’t even get in.

The school board, unsurprisingly, was condescending and appallingly arrogant, acting shocked that anyone would be upset by them dragging 14-year-olds before their tribunal to grill them about their and their parents’ faith.

I saw the same arrogant attitude that was displayed by the neighboring school board as it threatened and tormented my family all those years ago.

At least one of the Goochland County School Board members seemed more concerned about his evening plans than listening to the people, asking “how many more of these” do we have to hear?

Based on the statements of concerned citizens at the meeting, the school board has apparently already issued threatening letters demanding that parents and their minor children appear for questioning based on their religious beliefs.

When the coercive power of government is brought to bear on innocent citizens, tyranny exists.  Never in America should the government be forcing its citizens to defend their religious beliefs under the threat of legal and penal action.  But the very idea that children could possibly be forced to testify as to the tenets of their own faith is unconscionable, not to mention unconstitutional.

Thankfully, at the end of the meeting the school board made a preliminary vote to repeal the policy.  However, due to the opposition of one member, the policy must be voted on again at the next school board meeting.  A lot can happen between school board meetings and away from the public’s eye.  The board did vote unanimously to pause any referrals for court hearings for parents who have refused to allow their children to be interrogated under this policy until after the next meeting.

I’ll continue to follow this situation, as I know the people of Goochland County will.  Hopefully, the strong showing of the people will pierce the arrogance of the school board.

They can and must abide by the plain and clear meaning of Virginia law, which does not include interrogating the children of homeschool families about their religious beliefs.  The law protects their religious beliefs.

Matthew Clark is Associate Counsel for Government Affairs and Media Advocacy with the ACLJ. A lifelong citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he lives with his wife and three boys in Northern Virginia. Follow Matthew Clark: @_MatthewClark.