John Spearing thinks Colorado needs a parents' rights amendment because of a self-esteem test Pueblo School District No. 70 gave his then-nine-year-old daughter four years ago. The written test, administered to all third-graders in the district at the time, asked children to answer "yes" or "no" to a series of statements: "I am unhappy"; "I sleep well at night"; "My family is disappointed with me." That test, says Spearing, was given to his daughter without his knowledge. Then, in March 1994, after Spearing had just been elected to the school board, the results were passed to the local Department of Social Services and used to bolster child-abuse allegations against him.
To Spearing, now president of the District 70 school board, the test and the way it was handled represent the insidious intrusion of government into the private life of the family. It's a trend the Parental Rights Amendment can stop, he says--if supporters can get it on the ballot in time for the November 1996 election.
Spearing is one of the leading proponents of the ballot initiative, which would amend Colorado's state constitution to give parents an "inalienable right" to "direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children." The language is plain, the message, on its face, hardly objectionable. But not far beneath the surface is a mine field of legal quandaries and religious overtones that have an unlikely consortium of community groups from the Colorado Parent Teacher Association to local obstetricians organizing in opposition.
Despite the seemingly simple purpose of the Parental Rights Amendment, the politics behind it are anything but unsophisticated. The chief organizational muscle in Colorado has come from the Virginia political action committee Of the People, headed by conservative political analyst and anti-abortion activist Jeffrey Bell. Bell's group sought out sponsors for the initiative in Colorado, hired former College Republicans state chairwoman Leah DeLay to head what it calls the Colorado Coalition for Parental Responsibility, and has even aided in fundraising efforts here in the state. Today a core of local support has formed, much of it from Christian home-schoolers and anti-abortion activists who themselves are no strangers to the political process.
The Christian Coalition considers parental rights so essential to religious freedom that it has made the amendment part of its "Contract With the American Family," a religious rights campaign modeled after the Republican "Contract With America." The Coalition and other supporters say the amendment will help parents win back control over their children from increasingly invasive school systems and social welfare agencies by allowing them to sue in state court to stop certain practices and policies. But opponents decry the amendment as "stealth legislation" that could cripple public school systems and open up a Pandora's box of abuses. In fact, the language of the amendment is so vague and so open to judicial interpretation that even groups who have for years championed a reform of child welfare laws, such as VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) aren't quite sure about the Parental Rights Amendment.
All of which doesn't bother John Spearing one bit. "My daughter was in the third grade and they gave her the Piers-Harris [Children's Self-Concept Scale] test," he says. "They said they weren't going to use it for anything in specific. And then one afternoon in March of 1994 she was becoming a serious behavioral problem. She wouldn't do her homework and I yelled at her, then I picked her up and carried her into another room and put her down."
Though he admits to bodily carrying his daughter from room to room, Spearing says the event was "nothing physical" and sneers, "I didn't know yelling was a form of child abuse." But his daughter had a different interpretation. "She went to school and reported it," Spearing says. "They contacted the agency, and the elementary school counselor became involved and turned over her file to Social Services. The file said that she had been doing poorly in school, that there had always been problems at home--which was a lie--and that she had scored low on the test. And then it was just a nightmare, for a year."
Spearing and his current wife, Penny Spearing, were formally charged with misdemeanor child abuse, charges that later were dropped. According to a spokeswoman for the Pueblo County District Attorney's office, the charges were dropped because "it appeared the DA would not have enough evidence to prove child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt, and because the victim and the mother both felt" it would do no good to pursue the matter since Spearing's daughter by then lived with her mother, Spearing's ex-wife. But Spearing says that for him the battle won't be over until parents are protected from the long arm of the educational system.
"This amendment is absolutely necessary," he says. "It's the board of education, not the board of mental health. [The school] isn't there to teach morality to the children, or analyze the students. There is a danger that if you start toying around with a young mind you might plant an idea in his head. Down here in Pueblo we've spent a lot of money on sex education and I can tell you right now our children know a lot about sex education and our children have the highest pregnancy rate in the state.
"In fact," Spearing concludes, "if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have run for the school board when I saw problems in the schools. I would have just pulled my kids out."
Taking children out of school may well be what the parental rights movement is all about, in Colorado and across the country.
Efforts are now under way to pass parental rights amendments in 29 states. All of the amendments are based on a federal bill drafted by Michael P. Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, a group that believes parents who home-school their children are routinely discriminated against by public school bureaucracies. Standing beside Farris at the helm of the 29-state movement is Bell and his organization, Of the People.
On the federal level, Farris and Bell are working with Steve Largent, the former wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks who is now a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. Largent has introduced Farris's bill in Congress. H.R. 1946, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995, is being considered by the House Judiciary Committee.
In October of this year, Farris testified on behalf of his bill before the House subcommittee on the Constitution. He said he drafted the measure to address the growing number of lower court decisions that don't take into account parents' fundamental right to decide what is right for their child. "Parental liberty is dying from the cuts of a thousand switchblades," Farris told the committee, detailing cases in which parents have been the objects of suspicion from child welfare agencies and school officials simply because the families home-schooled their children or were extremely religious. Congressman Largent, who also testified, said that courts in a number of states have not recognized that parents have a fundamental right to control their children's education. He cited examples of condom distribution in a Massachusetts school, a Michigan requirement that parents who home-school their children receive teaching certificates, and a Georgia school district that provided confidential health services to students at a local clinic.
"The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act is needed because the government is using its coercive force to dictate values, offend the religious and moral beliefs of families, and restrict the freedoms of families to live as they choose," Largent asserted in his testimony. He went on to explain that his bill specifies four main areas of parental liberty: "directing or providing a child's education; making health care decisions for the child; disciplining the child, including reasonable corporal discipline; and directing or providing the religious training of the child."
The federal bill already is being opposed by the National Parent Teacher Association, the Family and Juvenile Law Section of the Association of American Law Schools, the Children's Defense Fund and a number of reproductive-rights organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. Vicki Rafel, spokeswoman for the National PTA, testified before the House subcommittee that the bill could be used by a few parents to mold exactly how and what entire classrooms of children are taught in school, down to what textbooks are purchased and what subjects are covered. "No parent should have the right to deny such services or information to all children based on personal convictions concerning his or her own child," Rafel argued. In addition, she testified, the bill would "put in jeopardy the health, welfare and education of children by removing from them the protection of the law if actions of uninformed parents put them at risk."
The amendment being proposed in Colorado is similar to H.R. 1946, though not identical. And it includes wording that sets it apart from measures in the 28 other states. According to DeLay, all of the other proposed state constitutional amendments limit themselves to making control over "upbringing and education" an inalienable parental right. In Colorado, says DeLay, "we added the words `values' and `discipline' because it's needed here in this state because of the school system and social services." DeLay says she and other local proponents such as Republican state representative Mark Paschall and pro-life activist Leslie Hanks thought the additional language was "imperative." "We didn't consider Colorado as any sort of a test case," DeLay says. "But considering our track record with things like term limits and Amendment 2, you could."
Sue Anderson, president of the Colorado Parent Teacher Association, is opposing the local parental rights effort as vehemently as her national organization is fighting the federal legislation. She agrees with Rafel that the amendment goes too far in taking control of course content out of the hands of educators. "Parents have rights already," Anderson says. "And this type of bill just opens a lot of areas to be misused. Parents have a right to complete information [about curriculum] and access to appropriate people, an opportunity to participate in decision-making, and a right to appeal any decision. But it's not their right to make the decision."
And, Anderson says, an amendment that could conceivably prevent school districts from having any say in what home-schooling parents teach their children isn't a particularly good idea either. "Really, children need the interaction of other children," Anderson says. "They need to learn how to work as a group and a society. Rather than breaking down into home schools, their parents should get involved."
Marti Houser, general counsel to the Colorado Education Association, says the Parental Rights Amendment could virtually paralyze the public school system. Though her organization has yet to adopt a formal position on Colorado's Parental Rights Amendment, Houser blasts DeLay's newly formed group as simply the latest offshoot of a "very well-organized faction" active in local politics.
"It's a faction that has been working in Colorado for years--especially Tom Tancredo [of the Independence Institute]--that has been behind a number of movements or initiatives to try to take the public schools away from the public," she says. "I'm not surprised to hear about [the proposed amendment]. There's been a recent attempt in Littleton and elsewhere to get school boards to adopt parental rights policies that would give parents a lot more control over the curriculum for their child. The particular policy [in Littleton] would have required written parental permission for students to participate in certain courses and field trips."
That policy was never adopted in Littleton--much to the chagrin of Clyde Harkins, one of the original proponents of Colorado's parental rights amendment. Harkins says he welcomes parental review and consent requirements in public schools. "Parents ought to be notified any time a controversial issue is handled or discussed in a school," he argues. "It needs to be mandatory and there needs to be definite approval or disapproval; otherwise, you're being undermined.
"It's incredible how much is going on when you start looking at the data," says Harkins, who claims that school officials sometimes "covertly" include curriculum items they know parents will object to. "People have an agenda: condoms, information about abortion, promoting homosexuality. This amendment would give parents recourse to sue in court [to prevent certain issues from being taught]."
Lynne Hart, a Denver pro-life activist and "crisis pregnancy counselor" who has emerged as a leading supporter of the parental rights initiative, agrees that schools often mislead students about social issues. "I know that if anybody tells my kids that they can have safe sex they're getting bad information," she says. Hart, who sends her children to the Cherry Hills Christian School, says she wants her kids taught about abstinence, not birth control. "It's not so much a value," she argues, "It's a truth. I want them to know that abstinence is the only truly safe sex."
Safe sex isn't what Douglas Campbell thinks of when he talks about the Parental Rights Amendment. Campbell, better known for his long-term association with the taxpayers rights movement and anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce--and for his frequent guest appearances on KHNC, the Johnstown radio station that serves as the flagship of the country's "patriot" movement--is one of the eight people who signed the original initiative when it was submitted to state authorities. Like Spearing, Campbell says he got involved in the movement because of a personal experience with the Jefferson County Social Services Department some six years ago.
"When buttinskis insert themselves into your family life they're a pain in the..." Campbell pauses for the right word. "A lower anatomical part," he says with a grin.
"When my kids were three and six years old, my wife died," Campbell explains. "There were two of them and one of me. My daughter, I guess she had turned seven about then, wanted to go to the park. My son was taking a nap. So, I gave her a watch and showed her what time to come back and sent her off. Well, one of her teacher's aides saw her at the park alone and decided it was her duty to report this to Social Services. Social Services came out and determined that there was neglect because I let her go to the park alone. Remember, this was west suburban Arvada, where no one goes unless they're on their way to Utah. And because of that, I'm on some computer system as a child neglect suspect."
Jefferson County didn't take Campbell's children away. But according to Campbell, the agency did continue to hound him. "There was another incident in which my daughter went to school with one of those shirts that had about twenty snaps up the front," he says. "And she was showing off to her friends--`watch what I can do,' she was saying--and she grabbed the bottom of the shirt and zooop, she opened the whole thing up. The school called Social Services and the police. It's idiocy! I never encouraged her to take off her clothes." Campbell shakes his head. "We parents need the presumption of innocence like anyone else in this country," he says.
In fact, parents' rights supporters leaped to the defense last week of James Kelley, an Aurora father charged with child abuse after he gave his 17-year-old son a black eye for allegedly telling a lie. Kelley has said he doesn't believe he did anything wrong; he faces a jury trial in January.
But it's unclear just how--or whether--the Parental Rights Amendment would provide parents who believe they're wrongly accused of child abuse or neglect any legal recourse. That's because the amendment does nothing to lift the statutory immunity that now protects government agencies who are negligent in the performance of their duties. "We need accountability," says Jane Conrad of VOCAL of Colorado Inc. "If the Parental Rights Amendment doesn't provide accountability, what good is it?" Ken Ward, president of Colorado Fathers for Equal Rights, agrees. "We haven't signed on," he says. "Philosophically, it sounds good, but I've learned to take a long, hard look before jumping on."
Even the measure's proponents on both the national and local levels say the PRA won't interfere with the government's ability to investigate and intervene in cases of child abuse and neglect. Republican senator Charles Grassley of Iowa made a point of assuring house judiciary committee members that "child abuse and neglect is a compelling government interest" and that the Farris bill would allow the government to override any fundamental or inalienable right parents might hold with regard to their children.
Greg Erken, Of the People's Virginia-based executive director, is just as adamant on the question. "The Colorado Children's Code defines abuse and neglect," Erken says. "The Coalition for Parental Responsibility does not challenge these definitions, nor is the Parental Rights Amendment intended to weaken or in any way amend this section. It's that simple."
But not everyone is so sure.
George Delaney, director of the Colorado Office of State Planning and Budget, wrote in a November 9 letter to Secretary of State Victoria Buckley that the amendment could "conceivably change the current child welfare system." Because of that, Delaney wrote, he could not complete an assignment from Buckley's office to determine the fiscal impact of the amendment.
Dr. Elizabeth McCrann, who chairs the Colorado Ob/Gyn Society Teen Health Program, uses much stronger language to describe the impact of the PRA. "As far as we know, this could go into every facet of the child's life," she says. "The vagueness of the way the law is written opens a lot of doors. Means of investigation and [mandatory child abuse] reporting law could be blockaded. In addition, medical services that are currently [provided to minors] as confidential under Colorado law, things like birth control, sexually transmitted disease treatment, mental health services, prenatal care, and the like could fall by the wayside because parents don't want their kids to be sexually active. And believe me, it's not that they'll stop being sexually active; it's that they won't get medical treatment for things that could be life-threatening."
Kim Poyer, a licensed clinical social worker and co-director of the Child Advocacy and Protection Team at Children's Hospital in Denver, sees an even graver danger. "If this [amendment] supersedes the Children's Code, that would be a problem," Poyer says. "Does that mean that you have a right as a parent to sexually initiate your child? Does control over upbringing mean you can shake a six-week-old to death?"
Marti Kovener, director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says the amendment "scares" her. "The hallmark of child sexual abuse is secrecy," says Kovener. "[Child molesters] groom their victim and make them feel responsible for what's happened to them. And then they blackmail them into keeping quiet about it by saying things like, `Mama won't love you anymore if you tell.' It's very intentional behavior. Anything that we do that further blocks the ability of these kids to be able to tell what happened to them--like limiting access to health services and counseling--would be a disaster. Children don't have the same ability to protect themselves as adults do."
But proponents say all the talk about child abuse is nothing but a political smokescreen, and they accuse critics of using scare tactics. "This has nothing to do with child abuse," says DeLay. "Child abuse will still be child abuse. It doesn't change that law."
Adds Lynne Hart, "Just because I'm pro-life or just because I send my kids to Cherry Hills Christian School doesn't mean I want to secretly be able to abuse the living daylights out of my kids and have carte blanche to do it. Parental Rights Act and abuse? The two don't go together. It would never enter my mind, if you didn't bring it up."
Marty Nalitz of the Colorado Christian Coalition echoes Hart's sentiments. "The Parental Rights Amendment wouldn't in any way impact child abuse laws," he says. "The legislature has laid down criteria about what is abuse and what's not." In fact, Nalitz says he had no objection to the recent successful prosecution of radical-right Denver radio talk-show host Bob Enyart for a belt-lashing that left welts, bruises and broken skin on his seven-year-old stepson's back. "Now I know Bob, and he's a friend of mine," says Nalitz. "But Bob was guilty. What he did was a crime because there were welts left."
Jeanne Adkins, a mainstream Republican state representative from Parker, just spent a summer with a special committee of legislators, parents and children's rights advocates rewriting the Colorado Children's Code. The new version, which will be introduced as soon as the legislature convenes in January, proposes a number of changes in current law, including making school attendance a matter of parental choice (it's now mandatory for kids under the age of sixteen), but also making it easier for parental rights to be terminated in certain child-abuse cases.
Adkins agrees with Nalitz that the parents' rights initiative wouldn't do anything to drastically alter child-abuse laws in the various states. "I don't think that the courts anywhere would construe what any of us would normally consider as child abuse as being the right of the parent," she says. "That's absurd. Sure, the language is slightly vague, but there are a lot of vague provisions in the [state] constitution, and the courts haven't construed them so broadly as to say the legislature had no authority."
DeLay laughs when she hears some of the more extreme predictions about the amendment's potential effects. "Ask them where they get their crystal ball," she says. "They're assuming that [the law would impact child abuse laws]. That's up for the courts to decide."
Indeed, the only thing that both the opponents and proponents of the Parental Rights Amendment agree on is that if it passes, judges across the state will be kept very, very busy. As proponent Tom Tancredo of the Independence Institute puts it, "The reality is that almost everything [in the amendment] will have to be adjudicated."
Surprisingly, the prospect of a litigious tidal wave pleases the amendment's conservative supporters. "If we're in court for the rest of our lives, thank goodness," DeLay says. "Then we will have done our job. People litigate the First Amendment every day--that doesn't mean there's something wrong with it. We're not here to decide what parents can or cannot do. If it's litigated from day to day, we've done our job."
"Call it the lawyer's full-employment act," says Katie Reinisch, public affairs director for Colorado Planned Parenthood. "Don't call it the Parental Rights Amendment when it won't do anything to guarantee the rights that are already there. If this passes, then every time a teenager walks into our clinic to seek information or birth control, will we need to call her parents? If she can't get information or birth control from us, that doesn't mean she won't have sex; it just means she won't be able to protect herself from diseases or pregnancy."
And Reinisch envisions other potential legal points the courts will be left to sort out. "If a teen runs away from home and ends up at a shelter at Urban Peak, does this mean her potentially abusive parents will be notified?" she asks. "When a teen goes to a community center for gay and lesbian counseling, will they have to call his parents?" Reinisch pauses for a moment. "We see parents who bring their teenagers into the clinic and say, `Give my child an abortion,' and the teen would rather carry to term," she says. "We see that just as frequently as we see it the other way around. Does this amendment mean we must give the teen an abortion over her objections?"
DeLay needs to get about 54,000 valid signatures in order to get the amendment on the ballot. But her group can't start collecting those signatures until it has successfully steered the amendment through the state's ballot title process, which is designed to ensure that the ballot accurately represents the initiative to voters. The first hearing in that process, held in early November, resulted in the approval of DeLay's group's original language by an oversight panel headed by Secretary of State Buckley.
But the results of that hearing were appealed just two days later. Katie Reinisch, Lewis L. Kelley, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Protection of Children, and Dr. James Allen McGregor, an epidemiologist and adolescent health expert at the University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center, filed for a rehearing based on three issues. Their appeal argues that the proposed amendment violates Colorado's single-subject ballot law; that the explanation of the amendment fails to express correctly and fairly the meaning and true intent of the law; and, finally, that the fiscal impact statement doesn't provide sufficient detail. "We're prepared to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to," says Reinisch.
But DeLay is anything but worried. "We will gather plenty of signatures; we will pass the quota for valid signatures, therefore putting it onto the 1996 ballot, and it should win with a high majority," she says confidently.
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Denver political analyst and pollster Floyd Ciruli takes a more cautious view of the amendment's future. "This will be a pretty serious debate with a lot of people in the middle," he predicts. "The liberals will engage and say this is a back-door effort to make sex education illegal. Conservatives will say no, this is about parental versus government rights."
In addition, says Ciruli, Colorado voters traditionally have been leery about ballot initiatives that on their face appear innocuous. "During the last election, there was an individual who put on the ballot an initiative related to welfare," Ciruli says. "On its surface it was also appealing, [requiring that] biological parents refund state medical assistance payments as an inhibitor to children having babies. But it lost."
Passage of a parental rights amendment is "not a foregone conclusion, that's for sure," Ciruli concludes. "It depends who lines up on what side. It's going to be a big battle."
And it's a battle John Spearing is more than willing to fight to the bitter end. "We don't want the clinics, social workers or anything like that" in schools, he says. "I may be accused of having a self-serving agenda, but that's okay. I'm not ashamed of it.