Understanding Religious Exemption
As homeschooling continues to grow, so does the number of parents who teach their children at home under religious exemption. However, religious exemption is not for everyone.
Since 1984 the Virginia Code has included language defining the ways parents can teach their children at home. Even before that, the law included a provision allowing parents to exempt their children from public education because of their religious convictions.
A religious exemption is for parents who have sincere convictions against sending their children to school. The revised statute § 22.1-254 (B)(1) states: A school board shall excuse from attendance at school: any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. For purposes of this subdivision, “bona fide religious training or belief” does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.
There are two issues parents must be prepared to prove: are your beliefs religious, and are they bona fide? The school board, not the division superintendent, must establish that the parents’ opposition to school attendance is based on religious beliefs. A religious belief must be one held in relation to a Supreme Being. Your entire belief system must be dependent on a supernatural God and His revelation.
The parents’ religious beliefs must be bona fide (meaning sincere). The courts have established that religious beliefs are not to be scrutinized by a school board as to truth, validity, or reasonableness. In order to be sincere they must be religiously based at the time they are asserted. It is not required that you have always held these beliefs in order to be valid. Your beliefs do not have to be held by all members of a particular group such as a church.
The courts have established that the only true test of bona fide religious beliefs is whether or not a family demonstrates through their life-style that God is supreme in every area. You must have a conviction that it would be a sin to send your child to school, and that it would never be an option to do so.
These beliefs cannot be political, sociological, or philosophical views, or a personal moral code, no matter how strongly held. You may disagree with the curricula or the methods of teaching in a public school. You may be concerned with safety issues. You may be displeased with family life education or the lack of character instruction. All of these are good reasons to homeschool but they do not constitute grounds to homeschool under religious exemption.
If the school board concludes that a family’s beliefs are bona fide and religious, they shall (or must) recognize a religious exemption to compulsory school attendance. Their decision cannot be based on your qualifications to teach, the methods you use, the curricula you choose, how well your children are doing, or any other issues pertaining to education.
When and How to Notify?
The religious exemption statute does not address the topic of when or how to inform the local school board of your religious convictions–there is no deadline for notification as there is in the general homeschool statute.
Letters are to be directed to the school board, not the division superintendent. Many families send a letter describing their religious beliefs. Some may include an affidavit from a pastor or a religious expert that their beliefs are religious, or letters from individuals vouching for the sincerity of their religious beliefs.
What to Expect
If you determine that your family has a bona fide religious conviction against attendance at school, then you must be prepared to articulate your beliefs before your school board. Not all parents will be required to testify before a school board concerning their religious convictions, but some will. This would be a stressful experience for any family–it would be even more stressful if your decision to homeschool under religious exemption was not based on a bona fide religious conviction. Make sure you know the law. Make sure you have good counsel.
Virginia is the only state that has a law specifically allowing a religious exemption from compulsory school attendance. If parents use the religious exemption statute inappropriately, meaning for any reason other than bona fide religious convictions, the state legislature will be more inclined to impose restrictions on religious exemption or even to repeal the law completely.
None of us can judge another person’s conscience. But we can examine our own. We can also listen carefully when others discuss their reasons for wanting a religious exemption. If their reasons are not consistent with the religious exemption statute, we must encourage them to comply with one of the other homeschool provisions.
All of us must know the law and apply it correctly, not only for our own protection, but for the protection of all homeschoolers.
* This article is not intended to be construed as legal advice. HEAV recommends that homeschoolers who are interested in pursuing religious exemption obtain proper legal counsel, or join Home School Legal Defense Association.
Read Christopher J. Klicka’s article, “Virginia Homeschool Exemptions,” that was presented to the Virginia Association of School Board Attorneys.