I have been involved in federal litigation on behalf of a Pennsylvania public school district that was sued by parents who claimed a religious exemption from the requirements of PA’s home school law. Last fall, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had upheld a lower court deicsion in that case, essentially concluding that the United States Constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom did not prevent the state from regulating home school programs in the limited manner that current law provides.
The parents in the case had asked the United States Supreme Court to review the decision, and this week the US Supreme Court denied that request (see the Court’s Order here – this case of Combs v. Homer Center S.D. is mentioned on page 11). This essentially ends the dispute with respect to the federal constitutional claims. In other words, the religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution do not exempt parents from compliance with the PA home school law and its requirement that the parents provide some evidence to the public school district that some appropriate education is in fact occurring.
There still are some state court claims that remain alive, however. Specifically, the parents also claimed that a Pennsylvania statute known as the Religious Freedom Protection Act (RFPA) provides the protection that the parents sought in this case. This question was not addressed by the Third Circuit, which actually sent that question back to PA state Courts since the RFPA is a relatively new statute that PA Courts have not had much opportunity to consider yet.
This week’s decision by the US Supreme Court marks a significant win for PA school districts. Soon, though, the next chapter will begin, as the battle turns to state court and the RFPA claims.