In a unanimous decision March 16, the justices said courts have "neither the mandate nor the expertise" to decide whether a child would be better off in a public, private or home school, but in cases such as this where parents are unable to agree on an educational choice, courts are obliged to intervene.
The case involves parents who divorced when their daughter was a baby, and though the daughter mostly lives with her mother, she sees her father weekly. The mother chose after kindergarten to homeschool her child, but the father soon complained that the girl was being harmed by the mother's Christian teachings and needed to be exposed to a more diverse social life.
In 2009, when the girl was about 10 years old, a family court ordered her to attend a public elementary school. The family court judge reasoned that the girl's "vigorous defense of her religious beliefs to counselor suggests strongly that she has not had the opportunity to seriously consider any other point of view."
"The parties reached an impasse regarding the exercise of their joint authority in relation to daughter's school placement, and the trial court faced a circumstance in which it had to resolve a parenting matter over which father and mother shared joint decision-making authority," Justice Robert Lynn wrote for the state Supreme Court.
"Both parents enjoy the fundamental liberty interest to direct the upbringing and education of their children," Lynn wrote. "Each parent was equally entitled to the presumption that his or her respective decision was consonant with daughter's best interests."
When the parents could not agree, the state Supreme Court said, the lower court rightly intervened and ordered the child to public school.
"While this case has religious overtones, it is not about religion," Lynn wrote. "While it involves homeschooling, it is not about the merits of home versus public schooling. This case is only about resolving a dispute between two parents, with equal constitutional parenting rights and joint decision-making responsibility, who have been unable to agree how to best educate daughter."
An Alliance Defense Fund allied attorney, John Anthony Simmons, represented the mother in the case and said parents have a fundamental right to make educational choices for their children.
"Courts can settle disputes, but they cannot legitimately order a child into a government-run school on the basis that her religious views need to be mixed with other views," Simmons said. "That's precisely what the lower court admitted it was doing.
"The lower court held the Christian faith of this mother and daughter against them. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court bypassed this issue and wrote this off as a 'parent versus parent' issue without recognizing the very real underlying threat to religious liberty," Simmons said.
Simmons argued that the burden of proof was on the father to prove that homeschooling was harming the child, and since no harm was demonstrated and the girl was acknowledged to be academically superior and socially interactive even by the court, the homeschooling arrangement should not have been altered.
Joseph Infranco, senior counsel for ADF, said, "Although we strongly disagree with the court's decision for this family and do not believe the trial court should have considered religion as it did, we appreciate that the Supreme Court limited its decision to the facts of this case. This decision cannot be used as a battering-ram against religious liberty or homeschooling, and ADF will be vigilant to make sure that it's not."
The Home School Legal Defense Association, which had filed an amicus brief in support of the mother, also disagreed with the New Hampshire Supreme Court's ruling. The association became involved because the lower court's ruling could have been read to create precedent in favor of public education over homeschooling, the group said in a news release March 16.
"The court flatly rejected that the lower ruling created any such precedent and HSLDA will oppose any efforts to wrongly use the case beyond its limited scope," the news release said, noting also that the state Supreme Court recognized that "in recent years homeschooling has become a widely used alternative to more traditional public or private schools."
Michael Donnelly, a spokesman for HSLDA, said, "We are disappointed that this young girl is being forced to attend a public school over her mother's, and reportedly her own, wishes. However, the New Hampshire Supreme Court confined its ruling to this case and these facts avoiding any collateral impact on the rights of other parents in New Hampshire who homeschool their children.
"While the lower court's decision could have been read to create a presumption in favor of public education over homeschooling, the court emphatically rejected this notion," Donnelly said.
Erin Roach is an assistant editor for Baptist Press.
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