Longform

WHO'S THE BOSS?

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"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."

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Michelle Johnston