by John McGowan, Esq., CHEA Board of Directors

“Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty … As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”

Thomas Paine

If you hang out at enough CHEA events or read more than a couple of our blog posts, then you have probably heard it said that CHEA operates on the twin pillars of “parental rights and religious freedom.” We know that we must be vigilant against the erosion of those pillars as there are very real threats. For example, we recall Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s newsmaking law review article in 2020 which essentially called for an end to homeschooling in America as we know it. As we highlighted then, Professor Bartholet took a swipe at both pillars, lamenting the “conservative Christian beliefs” of many in the homeschool community. She argued that we, as homeschooling parents, “can under the current law deny their children a meaningful education and subject them to abuse and neglect free from the scrutiny that helps and protects children in regular schools.” As we say in the law, malarky!

However, the point of this post is not to further address the specifics of that attack – there are many fine articles out there doing that. It is to recognize our strong position in the fight. You see, the battle over parental rights and religious freedom is theirs to try to win and ours to fight to keep. It is a serious fight to be sure, but we have the high ground and stand on a rich heritage of religious liberty and personal rights in this country. As we celebrate America’s founding this Independence Day, it is a great time to reflect on that heritage and thank God for it.

Of course we can trace religious liberty in America beyond the Declaration of Independence. But no document better describes the fundamental principles upon which our nation was founded. The following section of the Declaration contains perhaps the most often quoted language. The words are familiar but are certainly worthy of reading again:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

The Declaration was, and in many respects still is, unique in the world in establishing what it means to be free, a people whose rights don’t come by grant of an earthly king, but are handed out by a benevolent Creator. These rights are declared “unalienable,” meaning they exist whether granted by government or not. 

Even so, when it comes to religious liberty, that right was specifically recognized in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution when the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. The first clause of the First Amendment provides:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof 

While centuries of Supreme Court jurisprudence on the First Amendment has complicated the issue and created nuance, the first words of the Bill of Rights essentially made clear that (1) America would have no established state church, and (2) individuals would not be restrained in their religious practice. For this reason, Religious Liberty is often referred to as “America’s First Freedom.” This First Freedom, while facing attack more and more, has endured for more than 200 years. 

According to former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, writing for The Heritage Foundation, “part of the reason for the Constitution’s enduring strength is that it is the complement of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration provided the philosophical basis for a government that exercises legitimate power ‘by the consent of the governed,’ and it defined the conditions of a free people, whose rights and liberty are derived from their Creator. The Constitution delineated the structure of government and the rules for its operation, consistent with the creed of human liberty proclaimed in the Declaration.”

Last month, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, where the city of Philadelphia stopped referring children to a Catholic organization because the organization would not certify same sex couples to be foster parents due to its religious beliefs about marriage. The court, in a 9-0 unanimous decision, ruled that the City’s actions violated the Catholic adoption agency’s free exercise rights. The ruling was an important reminder that we still live in a country that recognizes the importance of religious freedom. Unanimous 9-0 rulings are rare indeed, particularly on this issue. Moreover, in making its ruling, the court highlighted the important role religious organizations have played throughout our history in serving and meeting societal needs. To stifle religious freedom is to stifle the work that so many people and organizations do in the name of service to God and their fellow man. 

With regard to parental rights, where the battle continues to wage as well, there is a strong heritage of recognizing that parents, and not the government, know and nurture their children best. This recognition springs from America’s founding documents. In Pierce v. Society of the Sisters (1925) 268 US 510, the Supreme Court held:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, (1972) the Supreme Court stated further:

The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition. 

James Madison, Father of the Constitution and drafter of the Bill of Rights, declared that “conscience is the most sacred of all property.” When we as Christians, or people of any faith, practice or exercise our religious beliefs, we are living out our conscience according to the dictates of our faith. Certainly, for many of us in the private Christian homeschool community, being obedient to teach in the home and tailor our children’s education according to our faith is primary. We, as parents, also know and love our children best and recognize that it is our obligation, and right, to raise our children absent unwanted outside government “help.” While remaining ever diligent, let us celebrate the freedoms that we have in this great country to live out our faith according to the high calling God has placed on each of us as homeschool families. May God continue to bless America.