(CNSNews.com) - A ruling by a California appeals court that parents "do not have a constitutional right to home-school their children" drew harsh criticism from religious conservatives on Friday, one of whom said the decision makes tens of thousands of parents into criminals - "the equivalent to drug dealers or pick-pockets."
"The court is guilty of an imperious assault on the rights of parents," James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, said in a press release responding to a three-judge panel from the 2nd District Court of Appeals, which ruled on Feb. 28 that parents without teaching credentials cannot home-school their children.
"How dare these judges have the audacity to label tens of thousands of parents as criminals - the equivalent to drug dealers or pick-pockets - because they want to raise and educate their children according to their deeply held values?" Dobson asked.
At the center of the case is a Southern California couple, Phillip and Mary Long of Lynwood, who home-schooled their children through a program at the Sunland Christian School in Sylmar. The family came to the attention of Los Angeles County social workers when one of the children claimed the father was physically abusive.
The workers then learned that all eight children in the family were home-schooled, and an attorney representing the two youngest children asked the Juvenile Dependency Court to order that they be enrolled in public or private school to protect their well-being.
Parents who fail to comply with school enrollment laws "may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program," wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey, whose decision was joined by the other two members of the panel.
But the case before the judges "involved one couple - the ruling should have been confined to that one couple, not used to punish an entire class of people, the vast majority of them religious conservatives," Dobson said.
"The scope of this decision by the appellate court is breathtaking," said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which describes itself as "a legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights and other civil liberties."
"It not only attacks traditional home-schooling, but also calls into question home- schooling through charter schools and teaching children at home via independent study through public and private schools," Dacus noted in a press release Friday.
If the Feb. 28 decision is not reversed, "the parents of the more than 166,000 students currently receiving an education at home will be subject to criminal sanctions" if they continue to live in California, he added.
Well-meaning but gullible parents
Until now, the state allowed home schooling if parents filed paperwork to establish themselves as small, private schools, hired a credentialed tutor or enrolled their child in an independent study program run by an established school while teaching him or her at home. Enforcement was left up to local school districts with little oversight.
To receive a five-year preliminary teaching credential in California, one must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university and pass a number of examinations.
Such requirements are supported by a number of unions - including the California Teachers Association (CTA), the state's largest teacher's union.
"We're happy," said Lloyd Porter, a member of the CTA board of directors. "We always think students should be taught by credentialed teachers, no matter what the setting."
Another supporter of certification for home school teachers is the National Education Association (NEA). Calls seeking a response from the NEA were not returned by press time, but the organization has posted on its Web site an article written by Dave Arnold from the group's Illinois chapter entitled, "Home Schools Run by Well-Meaning Amateurs."
"There's nothing like having the right person with the right experience, skills and tools to accomplish a specific task," Arnold wrote. "Whether it is window-washing, bricklaying or designing a space station, certain jobs are best left to the pros. Formal education is one of those jobs."
In his opinion, many home schools are run by "well-meaning but gullible parents," including those who educate their children according to their "religious convictions" and see home-schooling as the best way to combat our nation's "ungodly" public schools, Arnold wrote.
Those parents "would be wise to help their children and themselves by leaving the responsibility of teaching math, science, art, writing, history, geography and other subjects to those who are knowledgeable, trained and motivated to do the best job possible," Arnold added.
Nevertheless, Dobson noted that he views the court's decision "an all-out assault on the family, and it must be met with a concerted effort to defend parents and their children."
"We will team with key allies and use every means at our disposal to make sure that not just every Californian, but every American, is aware of this miscarriage of justice," Dobson said. "And we're hopeful that, in the end, common sense and legal sanity will prevail."
That battle may not be far off, since Phillip Long - the father in the original case - has already vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
"I have sincerely held religious beliefs," he told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "Public schools conflict with that. I have to go with what my conscience requires me to do."
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