Parents sue California schools for religious discrimination
Charter schools’ independent study programs denied religious materials
Breanna Woolard and her husband, John, care deeply about the education of their five children. That’s why the Christian couple transitioned to homeschooling about six years ago. The Santa Fe Springs, Calif., couple enrolled their three school-aged children in an independent study program at the charter school Blue Ridge Academy.
But while the family enjoys homeschooling this way, Woolard said they have run into 15 to 20 occurrences of bias against religion at Blue Ridge. The couple joined two other families in suing California state, district, and school officials for religious discrimination. All three families cite multiple issues at two different charter schools, with one of their children being expelled due to a disagreement over curriculum.
In California, some charter schools offer independent study programs that families can use for homeschooling. The programs give them access to state funds for purchasing curriculum and materials and funding extracurricular activities and individual classes. The parents then select the curriculum and teach their children.
In the lawsuit, the Woolards say that Blue Ridge has prohibited them from purchasing or using any curricular materials that have a religious affiliation, align with a religious worldview, or even reference religion. Along with that, their children have had to redo work and rewrite essays if they include information pertaining to their beliefs.
“We really care about what our kids learn and we love them,” said Woolard. “Education is extremely important to us, but implementing our beliefs into that is equally as important.”
Blue Ridge and the other charter school named in the lawsuit, Visions in Education, both claim that the families can’t use religious materials because of California Constitution Article IX, Section 8. The rule states that public money can’t be used to support the teaching of denominational doctrines.
However, this law directly clashes with First Amendment constitutional rights, said Justin Butterfield, deputy general counsel at First Liberty Institute, which represents the families.
The First Amendment protects free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion—all of which are implemented in this case, he said. The state is acting with hostility toward religion, especially by preventing the students from even mentioning their religious beliefs in assignments.
For Carrie Dodson, a widow and single mother named in the lawsuit, using religious curricula at a charter school resulted in the expulsion of her son. Dodson’s Christian faith is central to her identity and motivated her to use a religious curriculum to homeschool her son in Rancho Murieta, Calif.
However, at the start of the 2022-23 school year, Visions in Education rejected Dodson’s request to use The Good and the Beautiful, which bills itself as “multi-denominational” and is written by a member of the Latter-day Saints. All last fall, Dodson and Visions staff argued back and forth over the validity of the curriculum. All the while, her son completed assignments from it.
In January 2023, Visions informed Dodson it wouldn’t accept the work her son had completed from the religious curriculum and that he would soon be disenrolled for his “incomplete” work, according to the lawsuit. The school expelled him a month later.
Butterfield said the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that actions like this are unconstitutional. The California charter school’s refusal to fund religious materials goes directly against Supreme Court rulings like the 2022 case, Carson v. Makin, he said.
Carson revolves around an attempt by Maine to bar parents from using state tuition assistance to pay for their children to attend religious schools where no public schools were available. In a 6-3 opinion, the court ruled that Maine’s action to limit the use of funds to nonsectarian schools violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
“Some of the officials in California are holding closer to their statutes—even when those statues violate the Constitution—than they are to the Constitution itself,” Butterfield said. “There are several constitutional protections that California has violated here and hopefully this lawsuit will correct that and restore religious families in California from their apparent second-class status with the California Department of Education.”
Blue Ridge Academy, which serves Los Angeles, Ventura, and Kern counties, states on its website that it is “committed to providing an educational path for your child that is flexible, individualized, and full of opportunity.” Yet, in July 2022, weeks after the Supreme Court ruling in Carson v. Makin, a school official told the Woolards they couldn’t purchase religious works by William Penn or Jonathan Edwards to supplement their daughter’s study of colonial America.
Woolard said her 17-year-old daughter has been affected the most. While she said her daughter does “outstanding academic work,” the disagreement has become an extra burden for her to think about.
“It’s the frustration, it’s the discouragement of knowing that there are excellent resources for religious content … but we are not allowed to access that and use that to benefit our family,” Woolard said. “[We are] praying and hoping that this is successful and things will change to not just benefit our family but all the other families who would feel the same.”
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