Introduction: “Avoiding Censorship in Schools” | Religious Expression in the Public Schools | Sex and Sexuality Education | Harassment and Hate Speech | Student Publications | Student Expression: Web Pages, Dress Codes, and More | Access to Information on the Internet | Teachers’ Rights | Parents’ Rights


While not specified in the Constitution, the courts have historically recognized the rights of parents in the raising of their children. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923). Court decisions have bolstered parental rights, in the interests of protecting children: “The law’s concept of the family rests on a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions. It is also assumed that natural bonds of affection ordinarily lead parents to act in the best interests of their children. Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 602 (1979). Unless they are abusive or neglectful, parents to a great extent are free from state intervention in the rearing of their children. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).

Public, Private and Home Schooling
Parents’ right to direct their child’s education was recognized in 1923, in Meyer v. Nebraska, which concerned a student’s right to study German, in violation of a Nebraska statute prohibiting the teaching of a foreign language before eighth grade. A few years later, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), the Court upheld the right of parents to send their children to private or religious school, rather than public school, although the state retains the right to establish educational standards which such schools must meet.

More recently, the Supreme Court relied on Meyer and Pierce in ruling that Amish parents had a constitutional right to direct their children’s moral and educational upbringing consistent with their religious students, and were exempt from the state’s compulsory school attendance law. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 284 (1972). Based on these decisions, it is clear that parents may choose where their child will learn–in a public school, a private school, a religious school, or even in the home, as long as the education they receive meets state standards and criteria.

Considerably more difficulties arise when the issue is not where students learn, but what they are taught. Here, the balance of interests shifts heavily in favor of the state’s right to set standards and prescribe how they will be achieved through the curriculum.

Teaching about Evolution and Creationism
(see also: NCAC’s project on Science & Censorship)
Conflict over teaching about evolution has flared periodically throughout the 20th Century, but it was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court ruled definitively. In Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 103-04 (1968), the Court held that a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional on church-state grounds:

Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to non-religion; and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory over another. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.

Despite this seemingly definitive statement, Epperson did not quell the debate over evolution. In 1987, the Supreme Court revisited the issue and considered a Louisiana law that required the public schools to give “balanced treatment” to “creation science” and “evolution science.” The statute did not require that either be taught, but that if one was, the other had to be taught as well. Challenged by parents, teachers and religious leaders, the Court found the requirement of equal time was unconstitutional because it advanced “a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety.” Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 596 (1987).

Parents who want their children’s education to reflect or incorporate their religious perspectives will have difficulty achieving that goal in the public education system, but are free to send their children to a religious school. They may request to be excused from certain classes and assignments, and such requests are often accommodated, within the limits imposed by state standards and graduation requirements. What schools are not likely to do, nor should they, is to change the course content to reflect the religious views of some parents: “the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.” Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. at 106.

These principles have been applied recently in a case brought by Catholic parents who charged that various activities and exercises in the Bedford, New York schools promoted paganism, Satanism, and other beliefs that conflicted with Catholic teachings. The parents objected to magic games, an Earth Day event, stories and art projects about Indian and Aztec deities, worry dolls, yoga classes conducted by a Sikh minister, a Taos Indian incantation, and many other activities. The court rejected the parents’ claims on several grounds, and held that the activities addressed on appeal had a secular purpose, were not coercive, and did not endorse religion. Altman v. Bedford Cent. School District, 245 F.3d 49 (2nd Cir. 2001).

Condom Distribution
Can parents prevent a school from distributing condoms? Can they be supplied through a school clinic, handed out in a sex ed class, or sold in a vending machine in a high school washroom? This is another area in which parents have tried to assert their rights, and the case law to date has sent conflicting messages regarding the limits of parent intervention on this matter.

Parents who have tried to prevent their children from obtaining contraceptives at school argue that such programs violate parents’ rights to control the upbringing of their children and their right to free exercise of religion. One appeals court rejected these claims in Doe v. Irwin, 615 F.2d 1162 (6th Cir. 1980), finding that Michigan had a legitimate state interest in establishing birth control clinics to protect young women from the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Use of the clinics was voluntary, and parents remained free to exercise their traditional care, custody and control over their children. An intermediate appellate court in New York held that public schools must offer parents the opportunity to opt their children out of a condom distribution program. Alfonso v. Fernandez, 195 A.D.2d 46 (2nd Dept. 1993). The Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in contrast, upheld a mandatory sexuality education program and found that it did not have a coercive effect or infringe parental rights. Curtis v. School Committee of Falmouth, 420 Mass. 749 (S. Ct. Mass. 1995).