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Home invasion

ESSAY | Parents across the political spectrum are rejecting government efforts to dictate how they raise their children

Parents rally outside an Orange Unified School District board meeting in Orange, Calif. Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Home invasion
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On Aug. 29, 2023, The Washington Post described its latest evangelical villain: “No single figure has been more instrumental in transforming the parental rights cause from an obscure concern of home-schoolers into a GOP rallying cry,” the paper proclaimed. “In the eyes of his critics, he has masterfully imported an extreme religious agenda into the heart of the nation’s politics through the seemingly unobjectionable language of parents’ rights.”

I am the Post’s Christian bogeyman.

Although I credit the paper’s reporters with accurately and fairly using statements I made in lengthy interviews, and though I greatly appreciate the photo editor selecting shots that make me look good, the overall trajectory of the article was clear: It was yet another attempt to marginalize the idea that parents, and not the state, have the final say about the education of their children.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that the education establishment, many government officials, and their legacy media friends believe the opposite: Parents should stay on the sidelines and let the government call the shots. In March 2023, for example, the National Education Association labeled a parental rights bill pending in Congress “A Toxic Vision of Parent Engagement.” All the bill would have done was ensure parents have the right to know what’s being taught, the right to be heard, the right to see the school budget and spending, the right to protect their child’s privacy, and the right to be updated on any violent activity at school. But a growing number of parent activists have discovered that their own kids’ school districts are hostile to such ­reasonable requirements—and all over the country, they are fighting back.

Jessica Konen speaks out against two teachers at the Spreckels Union School District board meeting in 2021.

Jessica Konen speaks out against two teachers at the Spreckels Union School District board meeting in 2021. Nic Coury/AP

Take California’s Chino Valley Unified School District, for example. In July 2023, the conservative-majority school board voted to require parental notification of any effort by a student to be called by gender-opposite pronouns or by a new first name. In an unusual move, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond parachuted in from Sacramento to oppose the policy at the school board meeting. When Thurmond persistently tried to regain the microphone in violation of the standing rule that speakers are allowed to speak only once, public safety officers removed him from the room.

Then in August, California’s Spreckels Union School District settled a case brought by attorney Harmeet Dhillon of the Center for American Liberty on behalf of Jessica Konen, a mother who discovered that school officials had secretly convinced her daughter that she was bisexual and transgender. After being challenged and exposed, the school settled the case for $100,000.

But the state of California was not about to yield to ­parents. A few weeks later, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, filed suit against Chino Valley, the district whose conservatives had dared defy Thurmond. Bonta’s suit claimed the district’s efforts to uphold parental rights violate student rights to privacy. His efforts backfired: At least five other school districts have also adopted pro-­parent policies in California—including some who boldly acted after Bonta’s suit against Chino Valley.

Parents speak to the Chino Valley Unified School District board in July 2023.

Parents speak to the Chino Valley Unified School District board in July 2023. Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

The gender transition issue has erupted all over the country. Parents are being kept in the dark, and it is deliberate. One of the first cases challenging such practices began in December 2020, when parents discovered that the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin was encouraging the social gender transitioning of their children, and intentionally doing so despite the parents’ expressed wishes that the school not do so. The district does not dispute these basic facts.

A lawsuit challenging the Kettle Moraine schools was brought by the joint effort of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). I was CEO of ADF at the time, but have since retired. On Oct. 3, 2023, Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Maxwell ruled that the school’s policy violates the fundamental right of parents to make medical decisions for their children. He noted that the parents produced “uncontested expert affidavits” from mental health professionals with long expertise in treating gender dysphoria that demonstrate that “living a ‘double life’ at home and school” is “inherently psychologically unhealthy” and undermines a child’s support structures.

Maxwell ruled that this was no different than a school trying to administer medicine without a parent’s approval. “Likewise, the School District cannot change the pronoun of a student without parental consent without impinging on a fundamental liberty interest of the parent.”

Transgender policies are not the only flashpoints. In several school districts, parents have challenged school policies and critical theory curricula that divide and demean their children using racial and religious criteria. For example, a major ADF suit challenging Albemarle County School District’s policy is proceeding in the Virginia Court of Appeals. There, the district uses materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leftist legal group that among many other problems pointedly accuses Catholics of advancing a racist agenda. Such baseless anti-religious screeds are, in my view, unconstitutional on several grounds. But this case is in the early stage of litigation, and it will take some time before the view of the various courts becomes clear.

The gender transition issue has erupted all over the country. Parents are being kept in the dark, and it is deliberate.

While most such battles involve public school students, progressive elites have also mounted attacks on homeschoolers. Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School, was featured in a May 2020 Harvard Gazette article titled “A Warning on Homeschooling.”

“Many homeschooling parents are extreme ideologues,” Bartholet warned darkly, “committed to raising their children within their belief systems isolated from any societal influence.”

She followed, somewhat belatedly, other progressive law professors who have issued similar warnings in academic journals. Martha Albertson Fineman from Emory Law School called for a ban of all private education to ensure that all of America’s children are raised according to her progressive worldview. Meanwhile, Catherine Ross of George Washington University Law School argues—without apparent irony—that the law should not “tolerate” homeschoolers because homeschoolers are “intolerant.”

On the upside of all this, parental rights legislation has now been adopted in several states that seek broadly to protect the liberties of moms and dads to raise their children. I have helped to craft some of this legislation. But, it is impor­tant to realize that the scope of such laws is not limited to education but includes the right of parents to make decisions for their children concerning medical care, religious upbringing, and discipline, among other things.

For more than four decades, I have assisted many families in challenges brought by governmental officials who insisted that they could make better decisions than parents in each of these areas. I have found that when ordinary citizens hear about these conflicts, they immediately understand the stakes, and that protecting parental rights is just common sense and not religious extremism in disguise. Moderate and conservative lawmakers are also waking up to the need for parental rights legislation to protect families from disastrous and unjust results.

When ordinary citizens hear about these conflicts, they immediately understand the stakes, and that protecting parental rights is just common sense and not religious extremism in disguise.

ONE OF MY FIRST parental rights cases focused on the right of parents to make religious decisions for their children. I represented parents who had a 13-year-old son attending a public middle school in Island County, Wash. The family attended a local, nondenominational church and were faithful to attend services on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. Since this was my own experience as a child in church, I thought it was ­perfectly normal.

The boy in question, however, did not. He went to his school counselor complaining about how often his parents made him go to church. The counselor, outraged, called social services. Agency officials arrived at the school to interview the boy. After hearing his story, the agency decided to execute an emergency removal of the boy from his childhood home.

Under Washington law at the time, an emergency removal could only happen in an urgent situation involving an imminent threat to the well-being of the child. But that didn’t stop the agency. It removed the boy from his parents’ custody without notice and without a court hearing.

So what was the emergency that justified this action? It was Friday afternoon and Sunday was coming: The child would have to attend church twice. Horrors!

That Monday, the parents called me seeking help with a hearing that was scheduled for the next day. After a half-day hearing, where the only issue was the frequency of church attendance and in which there was no suggestion that this church was doing anything wrong, the judge looked at the parents and said, “I think once a week is enough church for any 13-year-old boy. If you want to keep custody of your son, you must agree to limit church attendance to once a week.”

I’m not making this up. The judge really said that.

I wanted to appeal this outrageous and, I believed, unconstitutional decision. But I couldn’t guarantee the ­parents that they could keep custody of their son during the appeal, so they decided to comply with the judge’s demand.

A few months later, I was presented with a similarly stunning situation involving the right of parents to discipline their child. The parents of Sheila Marie Sumey, a 13-year-old girl from Pierce County, Wash., sought help after she was removed from her family home by social workers because of conflict between parent and child. In this case, Sheila had been smoking marijuana and engaging in other inappropriate behavior. Her parents responded with common sense—grounding her in order to curtail such behavior. Sheila’s school counselor called social services, and an agent removed the girl from her home and placed her in long-term foster care.

The Sumeys’ case had already been all the way to the Supreme Court of Washington before they came to see me. The courts found that both the parents’ rules and their method of enforcement were reasonable. But under a Washington state law, any conflict between parent and child was a sufficient ground to remove the child and place him or her in foster care.

The Sumeys came to me hoping I would appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. I quickly calculated the deadline and realized the appeal had to be filed the next day. Even today with all our technology that would be an enormous challenge. But this was in the early 1980s, and it was simply impossible. Years later, Sheila, now a mother of teenagers herself, testified in Congress at my request on a parental rights bill that was heard in committee. She told Congress that the state of Washington did her no favors by putting her in foster care. She would have been better off by far, she said, if the state would have told her to go home and obey her parents.

Both of these Washington cases highlight the problem with laws that hew to the ideology Hillary Clinton summarized with the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village. Clinton and other progressives argue that while children may belong to individual families, the reach and oversight of collective society does not, and should not, stop at a family’s front door. Recognition of the prior right of parents—either as a matter of statutory or constitutional law—is essential to stop such ideology from ruining the lives of children with laws ostensibly designed to help them.

Michael Farris at Patrick Henry College

Michael Farris at Patrick Henry College Photo by Mike Kepka/Genesis

OF ALL MY LITIGATION on behalf of parents, perhaps none has touched me more than the case I did for the Stieler family from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Jacob Stieler was 8 when his family doctor discovered Ewing’s sarcoma, a dangerous cancer, growing along his spine. Jacob’s parents, Erin and Ken, took him to Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids for treatment. He underwent surgery and a round of chemotherapy. At the end of this phase of treatment, all tests indicated Jacob was cancer-free. Nonetheless, doctors from Children’s Hospital wanted to do a second round of experimental chemotherapy.

But Jacob hated chemotherapy. After the first round he’d said, “I would rather go and be with Jesus than do that again.” His parents feared he was losing the will to live.

In consultation with their family doctor, the Stielers decided to take a watch-and-wait approach to see if the cancer recurred. The hospital staff, however, was not willing to let the parents make this important decision for their son. The doctors called social services and reported the family for medical neglect. Both the local social services agents and the local prosecutor investigated the family. They decided the family had done nothing wrong and refused to proceed against them.

This did not satisfy the hospital, which used its clout with state officials in the department of social services. The department hired a private lawyer to act as a special prosecutor to bring criminal charges against this family. I took the doctors’ depositions and established they were trying to use a medical protocol that had not been approved by the FDA for juvenile Ewing’s sarcoma. It was a permissible off-label use, but it was clearly experimental. The doctors believed the treatment could be successful, which they defined as surviving for five years after the treatment.

Armed with these admissions by the doctors, I moved to dismiss the criminal case against the family. As far as tests could reveal, Jacob was cancer-free. Meanwhile, it was clear that the hospital wanted to use an unproven experiment. My argument boiled down to this: Who decides for children in cases that fall in the gray zone? Relying on a Michigan statute I knew well, I argued that parental rights are fundamental in character—the highest level of constitutional protection of our liberties. Parents, not the government and not Children’s Hospital, get to make the decision when the facts fall in the gray zone. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the charges based primarily on this state statute protecting parents that I had helped to write years earlier.

But the case was still not over: The state immediately appealed the decision. We were awaiting the appellate court ruling when the family doctor discovered that Jacob’s cancer had returned. His parents took him to a different specialty hospital, which treated him with a non-experimental protocol.

Jacob lived nearly six years after this second round of treatment—long enough to make it to his senior year in high school, where he ran on the cross-country team. He was a robust outdoorsman and skilled hunter. He had lived for six more years—longer than the five years the first doctors had hoped for—without experimental treatment.

This litigation was bittersweet to be sure, but both the Stielers and I were grateful that they were free to continue to make the best available decisions for their son throughout these intervening years.

The left’s fantasy is that people like me are injecting an extremist religious agenda into American politics. The reality is quite different. Parental activism often gains the approval of the strong majority of the public.

THE LEFT’S FANTASY is that people like me are injecting an extremist religious agenda into American politics. The reality is quite different. Parental activism often gains the approval of the strong majority of the public. There is no better proof of this than the aftermath of the clash between the Loudoun County School Board and Scott Smith and other parents.

You may remember Loudoun County. The jurisdiction, where I’ve lived with my family since 1987, gained unwanted national prominence when parents objected to a radical LGBTQ agenda advanced by its former superintendent and adopted by its school board. First, the board suspended middle school teacher Tanner Cross for speaking out against its proposed transgender policy. Then, the next school board meeting erupted into chaos when an audience member verbally accosted Scott Smith, a parent who opposed the adoption of the controversial policy.

Smith’s opposition to the policy was profoundly personal. His daughter had been sexually assaulted in a Loudoun County High School bathroom by a boy who was cross-­dressing in a skirt. It was his second such assault. School officials had simply transferred him from one school to another and did their best to suppress any public knowledge of his actions or the surrounding facts. It’s easy to see why knowledge of sexual assaults by a cross-dressing male might threaten the adoption of a policy seeking to normalize transgenderism in the school system. The policy also required all teachers and students to change their vocabulary to show support for this approach to transgenderism.

After the audience member threatened to harm his reputation and business, Scott Smith refused to sit down and shut up. He was arrested for disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice but was ultimately convicted only of disorderly conduct.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) then used Smith’s story to craft its infamous letter to President Joe Biden, asking him to empower federal law enforcement agents to pursue parent activists for violating laws against domestic terrorism. NSBA got the letter it wanted tout de suite.

A mere five days later, Attorney General Merrick Garland obligingly issued a letter promising to use the Justice Department’s “authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate.” He ordered the FBI to convene meetings in every federal judicial district in the country within 30 days to combat this alleged threat arising from parental activism. It later turned out the White House had asked NSBA to ask President Biden to intervene—this in order to justify federal action the administration already wanted to take. Scott Smith was simply a convenient straw man.

Angry parents and community members protest at a 2021 Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Va.

Angry parents and community members protest at a 2021 Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Va. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters/Newscom

SCRIPTURE SAYS that he who digs a pit for another will fall into it, and here again, leftist extremism backfired. Businessman Glenn Youngkin told and retold Smith’s story as he campaigned for parental rights during his 2021 campaign for Virginia governor. The Washington Post’s ­election night exit polls revealed that 8 out of 10 Virginia voters agreed “strongly” or “somewhat” with Youngkin’s stand on parental rights. Just 1 in 10 agreed with his opponent’s bold yet tone-deaf denial of the right of parents to have any meaningful say in their children’s education. And ultimately, Youngkin used his power as governor to pardon Scott Smith, declaring him “factually innocent.”

Parents have the natural common sense to believe they will consistently make better decisions for their children than would come from government bureaucrats. Parents are not only guided by common sense and the ability to listen to expert advice as needed, but every decision is wrapped in the natural love that God gives moms and dads for their children. And that’s the approach to life our law needs to protect.

—Michael Farris is the founder and former president of Patrick Henry College. Read more about him in Backstory.

Michael Farris

Michael Farris is a lawyer and former president of the Home School Legal Defense Association and former president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom.


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