Third Circuit Upholds Constitutionality Of Home School Law

In a recent decision, the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the United States Constitution does not provide any religious exemption or other protection to parents who choose to educate their children at home without complying with Pennsylvania’s Home Schooling Law. The case involved individual families from a handful of School Districts throughout the State. In each of the instances, the parents had alleged to their local School Districts that their sincerely held religious beliefs prohibited them from complying with the requirements of the home education section of the Pennsylvania School Code.

Specifically, they challenged the home school law’s requirement that a parent notify the District, at the beginning of the year, that the child would not be in school because he or she is being educated at home, as well as the statutory requirement that the parent submit to the School District, at the end of the year, a portfolio of work completed during that year. The parents alleged that their sincerely held religious beliefs taught them that the education of the children was a responsibility given to them by God alone and that any governmental oversight was inconsistent with or interfered with that religious belief.

The parents relied on two main theories to support their claim that this alleged burden on their religious beliefs was unlawful. First, the parents alleged that the free exercise clause of the first amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed them the right to be free from such governmental intrusion into their exercise of religion. Second, the parents alleged that the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act (“RFPA”) also provided a statutory protection for their religious beliefs. The RFPA is a relatively new statute, adopted by Pennsylvania just a few years ago. Essentially, the RFPA provides that no governmental entity in Pennsylvania may place a “substantial burden” on a person’s free exercise of religion, unless there is a “compelling interest” on the part of the governmental entity to do so, and unless the entity uses the “least restrictive means” of accomplishing that interest.

The Third Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that the parents’ Constitutional claims were without merit. The Court held that the home school law is a neutral law of general applicability that “neither targets religious practice nor selectively imposes burdens on religiously motivated conduct.” In other words, the requirements of the law are the same for parents who home school for religious reasons or include a religious component to their home education, as they are for those parents who home school their children for any other reason.

If a law is a neutral one of general applicability, it must only have a rational basis in order to be found constitutional. The Third Circuit held that the state’s longstanding interest in public education, and in making sure that home schooled children are receiving some particular level of education, was a rational basis that supported the conclusion that the home school law was constitutional.

Interestingly, the parents also argued that this case involved more than just religious liberties and instead involved what is known as a “hybrid right.” A “hybrid right” is one that involves two fundamental rights. In considering hybrid rights, Courts have held that a neutral law of general applicability must not only meet the rational basis test described earlier, but it must pass a stricter judicial scrutiny.

In this case, for example, the parents alleged not only that their religious liberties were at issue but also the right to control the education of one’s children. The Third Circuit held that this case did not present a hybrid right. Although the parents argued that the right to control the education of their children was at stake here, the Court found that nothing in the state’s portfolio requirement took any real control from the parents. In many situations, the parents had included religious components in their home education programs and none had received any complaint from their respective districts or had their portfolios rejected on the basis of the presence of any religious component to the education. As a result, since the parents were found to have as much control over the education of their children as they otherwise would have without the portfolio requirement, the Court found that this case did not involve a hybrid rights claim and that the statute, therefore, only needed to have a rational basis.

Interestingly, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals did not answer the second question – whether or not the Pennsylvania RFPA would provide any religious exemption from the home school law. Instead, the Third Circuit held that, because the FRPA is a Pennsylvania State statute that is relatively new and has not yet been fully considered by Pennsylvania State Courts, it would send the question back to the State Courts to answer it.

The parents appear to be appealing this decision to the United States Supreme Court. Statistically speaking, the Supreme Court agrees to hear only a very small number of cases. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is a question they will want to address. Unless United States Supreme Court agrees to consider these Federal constitutional claims, this will be the final answer with respect to the issue. We will have to wait and see, however, how the Pennsylvania State Courts address the RFPA claim.

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