F”Parental rights” at the expense of children

f”Parental rights” at the expense of children – Civil Liberties Watch

Barbara Dority

The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act (PRRA) of 1995 (S.984/H.R.1946): that certainly sounds pro-civil rights, pro-children, and pro-families. (And we definitely wouldn’t object to parents taking responsibility for the rearing of their own children!) Unfortunately, this proposal, currently being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, has little to do with civil rights and even less to do with individual responsibility. “This legislation is a monster in a misnomer,” writes syndicated columnist Tom Teepen. I would add that it is also another Republican offering to the Christian Coalition, upon which the GOP will depend for an estimated 20 percent of its voters in the forthcoming election.

The PRRA states that “no Federal, State, or local government, or any official of such a government acting under color of law, shall interfere with or usurp the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of the child of the parent.” Under this bill, parents could sue in state or federal court any government entity that they feel interferes with their control of the education, medical care, discipline, or religious teaching of their children. Under this broad rubric, virtually every decision of public schools, libraries, health and welfare programs, and some significant case law regarding parental withholding of medical treatment would be subject to legal challenge. This legislation mirrors efforts in several states to codify “parental rights” through both legal and legislative channels.

The usual right-wing proponents (plus various home-schoolers’ organizations and church schools), bemoaning “increasing government intervention into family life,” believe that any law or regulation that affects “parental rights” is invalid. Reading this legislation is a stark reminder of the right-wing ideology that children are literally possessions of their parents. Greg Erken, executive director of Of the People, the conservative organization leading the push for “parental rights” legislation at the state level, bluntly states that these laws are necessary “to challenge outcome-based education and condom distribution in public schools, to stop the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children, and to restrict or remove materials from public libraries.”

Erken is absolutely correct. The PRRA would nullify the right of older minors to receive comprehensive health care. Many states have passed legislation granting teenagers the right to receive comprehensive confidential health care, including AIDS testing and treatment for sexually transmitted disease–care they might not seek if forced to obtain parental permission to do so.

These are only a few of the possible applications of “parental rights” legislation. Concerns have also been raised regarding possible challenges to both mandatory childhood immunizations and child-labor laws. And, clearly, any law which forbids “interference” with a parent’s complete control of a child’s medical care and “religious instruction” will preclude any intervention when parents choose to withhold appropriate medical treatment or to apply “treatment methods” which themselves cause injury or death. Legitimate concerns are also raised by the PRRA’s specific approval of corporal punishment and the fact that supporters vehemently opposed an eventually successful amendment exempting demonstrable child abuse or neglect (an exemption not found in at least two of the latest state versions).

Certainly we would not dispute the primary role of parents in the care, upbringing, and education of their children. But it’s the same old story: PRRA proponents aren’t satisfied with forbidding just their own children to read certain books in the school library; they demand that the books be removed from the library completely, forbidding them to all the children of the school. In other words, contrary to what they say, these people don’t want to take responsibility for providing guidance and establishing control of what their children see, hear, and read. They want the government to enforce their judgments for them–by law–upon everyone’s children.

Making it possible for parents to sue a school district for violating their right to direct their child’s education has horrifying implications. Public schools would be obligated to excuse students from any course to which parents object and to provide acceptable alternative curricula or reading materials. At last count, Phyllis Schlafly’s list (published in the Eagle Forum newsletter) of dangerous topics from which parents should protect their children in public schools included over 90 entries. This list, begun over 14 years ago, has come to include just about everything: creative problem solving, critical thinking, divorce, witchcraft, male/female roles, an array of historical facts and events, a long list of classic novels, overpopulation, evolution, and so on ad infinitum. Teachers would be forced to utilize only the most bland teaching materials in order to avoid lawsuits, seriously compromising the quality of public education, which is already suffering significantly under the attacks of these same right-wing censors.

California’s Assembly Bill 2248 goes even further. Though parents in that state already have the option of removing their children from certain classes of which they disapprove, this new bill would mandate that no student–even in high school–could attend any sex or AIDS education program without the direct, advance permission of a parent. That requirement would make it cumbersome for schools to provide programs in health education. Furthermore, the bill would financially penalize schools that allowed any student to attend without such express permission.

In this “parental rights” movement, we are confronted, once again, with the prevailing right-wing notion that, because public education isn’t religious, it’s anti-religious. This is why critics of the movement continue to warn that the PRRA and its like could violate the principle of church-state separation by requiring government support of private religious education. After all, if the public schools are violating “parental rights,” then some parents might argue that turning to the private sector is their only option. Private school vouchers could even be declared a “parental right.” Or mandatory education itself might be seen as an “interference” between parent and child.

That these concerns are no alarmist fantasies was made clear on May 2, 1996, when Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, spoke to the issue during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said:

If you put it in terms of who should be sovereign over children–parents or some state government bureaucracy–you win the battle pretty niftily, and then you just ease on in to choosing where a kid goes to school.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Catholic Conference, in its recently issued pamphlet, Principles for Educational Reform in the United States, declares that

parental rights are natural and inalienable. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education best suited to the needs of their children, and they should not be burdened economically for choosing a private or religious school in the exercise of this fundamental right.

The pamphlet further argues that government should provide “assistance” so that parents might better enjoy this “right.”

But wouldn’t the First Amendment prevent such an interpretation? Not if Of the People gets its way. The organization is pushing for a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that reads simply: “The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.”

It seems “parental rights” advocates are also convinced that various child-protection laws are a conspiracy to remove children from Christian homes, bring them under government control, and brainwash them–another vicious tactic in the persecution of Christians in America. In order to protect themselves, they say, “parental rights” legislation must be enacted–laws which essentially scrap the long-standing “best interest of the child” legal standard in favor of virtually “anything goes” parenting.

In this regard, a proposed amendment to the California state constitution is ominously clear in its wording. It holds that parents have the “fundamental right to control the care and custody of their minor children, including control over education, discipline, religious and moral instruction, health and psychological and emotional well-being of the child.”

Thus, while nominally seeking to protect families from unwarranted governmental interference, these proposed laws ignore the rights of children and leave federal, state, and local governments vulnerable to time-consuming and costly litigation, even when they are acting in a child’s and community’s best interest. “There’s a very fine line between the rights of parents and the rights of children,” says Shirley Igo, vice-president for legislation for the National Parent-Teacher Association. “We’re strong advocates for parental responsibility and involvement, but this tips the balance where only parents’ rights are protected.”

Such legislation as the PRRA is also intended to provide legal support for other proposed laws, such as Washington State’s “Becca Law,” which would have allowed parents to involuntarily commit their children to rehabilitation centers or psychiatric hospitals with virtually no judicial review. Fortunately for our state’s young people, this law was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Washington State Supreme Court. But similar efforts are being launched in other states.

Opposition to the PRRA and its relatives is being mobilized. Medical associations, churches, children’s advocacy groups, and women’s rights groups are organizing, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Child Welfare League of America, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, the American Jewish Committee, United Methodist Church, the National PTA, and the National Education Association. People for the American Way is organizing activist opposition on the national front.

As usual, this is scary stuff. But it’s hardly out of character as right-wing tactics go. Civil-rights activists may feel overwhelmed, but we must persist in opposing every one of these maneuvers. What other choice do we have?

COPYRIGHT 1996 American Humanist Association

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