State interferes with religion, plaintiffs argue
PITTSBURGH — On any given school day, the five Newborn children might be studying statistics at a local college, learning Spanish from a tutor or watching a procedure at a veterinarian’s office.
It’s part of a curriculum set by their parents, who home school their children because they consider it a calling from God. It all must be carefully documented in a report each year to their local school superintendent.
In cases being closely watched by home schooling advocates across the country, the Newborns and a second Pennsylvania family have filed lawsuits under the state Religious Freedom Protection Act challenging the state’s home school reporting requirements.
The act allows people to challenge any laws they believe impose “substantial burdens upon the free exercise of religion without compelling justification.” Similar statutes were passed in 11 other states after a federal religious freedoms law was declared unconstitutional in 1997.
Pennsylvania’s home-schooling regulations are among the most stringent in the nation.
Darren Jones, staff attorney for the Purcellville, Va.-based Home School Legal Defense Association, who is involved both cases, said Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom act is the perfect vehicle for the lawsuits. Parents who choose to home school their children tend to be religious, he said, and have many children, making reporting requirements more cumbersome.
State law requires home-schooling parents to submit notarized affidavits at the beginning of each school year for children 8 years and older about what they plan to teach. Parents also are required to submit medical information about their children and attest that they have never been convicted of crimes.
The parents keep a log and chart their children’s progress in preparation for an end-of-year report signed off by a third party that must be submitted to school superintendents.
Newborn said she and her husband had been submitting the paperwork each year. But after 2002, they wrote a letter to the school district saying the paperwork was discriminatory and violated their religious beliefs. The school district charged the Newborns with truancy, and the couple submitted the paperwork under protest, Newborn said.
The couple decided the best way to challenge the law was to file suit, she said.
In the second case 250 miles away near Philadelphia, Thomas and Babette Hankin sued the Bristol Township School District. The couple, who live in Croyden, have been home schooling their seven children for about 10 years, and never filed anything with school officials.
The district found out last year when someone contacted Social Services.
The family tried to come to an agreement with the district, Babbette Hankin said. When school officials said they must comply with the state law, the Hankins sued. The district countersued, asking a judge to fine the couple for truancy and require them to attend parenting classes.
“This is what God has called us to do. This is the parents’ job,” Babette Hankin said. “We believe it’s the parents’ job to raise and educate their children.”
If they must submit paperwork, Hankin and Newborn said they would rather submit it to a Christian school. It’s ironic, Newborn said, that religious schools are only required by the state to report attendance.