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A divided Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that the Prince William County School Board acted properly two years ago when it denied a couple a religious exemption from state compulsory-education laws because they failed to prove that their request was based on sincere religious beliefs.

The couple, F. Tracy Johnson and Kathleen Johnson, sought the exemption in 1988 to teach their two sons at home. Under Virginia law, home-schooling parents must meet state criteria--such as having a college degree or following a state-approved curriculum--or seek an exemption based on "bona fide" religious beliefs that prevent them from sending their children to public schools.

In October 1988, the Prince William board rejected the couple's request for the religious exemption, concluding that there was no evidence it was based on sincere religious beliefs. A state judge upheld the board's action.

Chief Justice Harry L. Carrico, writing for the majority in the high court's 4-to-3 decision last month, said that after reading the Johnsons' testimony before the board, "we have great difficulty in ascertaining what their beliefs really are."

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