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Conservative Group Backs Parent-Rights Amendment

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A Virginia-based organization that believes school officials and others sometimes act against the wishes of parents is pushing a "parent rights" amendment to state constitutions nationwide.

The proposed amendment offered by Of The People states that "the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed." It would also give legislatures the power to enforce the amendment.

The amendment's backers say it is needed to counter condom-distribution programs and curricula in public schools that they believe hinder parents' efforts to raise their children as they see fit.

"When parents try to get involved in their public schools, they find that their rights are not being respected," said Greg D. Erken, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based group.

Supporters say the amendment would codify two important U.S. Supreme Court rulings dating from the 1920's that guarantee parents the right to direct their children's upbringing.

The cases are Meyer v. Nebraska, a 1923 decision in which the High Court upheld the right of parents to raise their children free of unreasonable state interference, and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a 1925 ruling that overturned an Oregon law requiring parents to send their children to public school. The Court said the law "unreasonably interfere[d] with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control."

"The problem as we see it," Mr. Erken said, "is that although these cases have never been overturned, they have become kind of a dead letter among state judges and officials in the executive branches."

"This amendment will revitalize this parental-rights doctrine," he argued.

Of The People's materials contend that the amendment would make public schools more accountable to parents "by giving them greater oversight of academic standards and by helping to insure that values taught at school don't conflict with values taught at home."

In practical terms, that would mean parents would have the right to bar their children from receiving condoms in schools, Mr. Erken said. It could also help guarantee that parents have access to information about student tests, he added, such as the controversial statewide assessments that California scrapped last year.

The amendment would also help derail the recent trend in family law that allows children to gain legal representation separate from their parents, the group's materials say.

"The amendment will help prevent such intrusions into the parent-child relationship," they state.

Unnecessary or Dangerous?

Of The People was founded early last year by Jeffrey Bell, a conservative author and parent who lives in Fairfax County, Va. The group has found sponsors for the proposed constitutional amendment in 24 states, Mr. Erken said, and the measure has been seriously debated or voted out of committee in a half-dozen of those states.

In Washington State last week, the House was considering a floor vote on the measure. In the California Senate, however, the proposal has been sent to three separate committees, virtually dooming its chances there.

Armen Martin, an aide to Sen. Rob Hurtt, who introduced the California amendment, acknowledged that it would not have much effect if adopted.

"But we are trying to make a statement that parents, and not government, should be responsible for raising children," he said.

Some observers believe that the measure is unnecessary and even potentially dangerous.

The amendment could create confusion about the validity of laws such as those barring child abuse or requiring child vaccinations, said Elliot Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, a liberal civil-liberties group in Washington.

"If what they are really saying is that parents' rights can't be infringed, that could have all sorts of consequences," Mr. Mincberg said. "Our view is that the amendment is either unnecessary or it would seriously conflict with the current legal notion of parental rights and responsibilities."

Of The People responds that there are already recognized limits to parent rights. The amendment would not take issue with compulsory school attendance, mandatory vaccination policies, or laws prohibiting child labor or child endangerment, the group says.

"Why is there such an innate distrust of parents," said Mr. Erken, "that when we speak of parental rights, we immediately hear of things that put parents in such a poor light? The vast majority of parents do a very good job raising their children."

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