- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

A New Hampshire court ordered a home-schooled Christian girl to attend a public school this week after a judge criticized the “rigidity” of her mother’s religious views and said the 10-year-old needed to consider other worldviews as she matures.

Ever since the judge’s ruling came out in July, the case has aroused the interest of home-schooling groups nationwide, who have asked why a court has the power to decide whether someone’s religious views are too extreme.

The girl’s mother, Brenda Voydatch, has engaged the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., to contest the ruling, in which the judge granted a request by the girl’s father, Martin Kurowski, that the girl go to a public school.

On Tuesday, the girl, Amanda Kurowski, started fifth grade at an elementary school in Meredith, N.H., under court order. Amanda’s “vigorous defense of her religious beliefs … suggests strongly that she has not had the opportunity to seriously consider any other point of view,” District Court Judge Lucinda V. Sadler said.

The case is the latest in a series of disputes this summer which have tested the limits of parents’ right to raise their children in line with their religious beliefs.

• Two court cases saw parents who relied on prayer being tried for the deaths of their children. In Wisconsin, Dale and Leilani Neumann were found guilty of second-degree reckless homicide in the death of their 11-year-old diabetic daughter, Kara. In Oregon, Carl and Raylene Worthington were acquitted of manslaughter in the pneumonia death of their 15-month-old daughter, though the father was found guilty of a lesser count, criminal mistreatment.

• The case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old Minnesota boy with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, precipitated a national manhunt that dominated the news in May. Mother Colleen Hauser defied legal authorities that ordered the boy to be treated by oncologists and fled with her son, citing family beliefs in traditional American Indian medicine.

But those cases all involved physical danger and the state attempting to prove that parents were acting recklessly. In the New Hampshire case, the court ruled that extreme religiosity by itself constitutes grounds on which to rule against a parent’s wishes.

According to court documents filed in Laconia, a small city in the central New Hampshire’s Belknap County, Amanda is a well-adjusted child whose parents were divorced in 1999.

The mother has primary physical custody of Amanda, whom she has home-schooled for several years in math, English, social studies, science, handwriting, spelling and the Bible.

The course load, except for the Bible study, is similar to what public students get and the mother’s home schooling has “more than kept up with the academic requirements of the [local] school system,” the judge’s statement said. The child also takes supplemental public school classes in art, Spanish, theater and physical education and is involved in extracurricular sports such as gymnastics, horseback riding, softball and basketball.

Her parents have been feuding for years over how she should be educated. The father tried to get Amanda removed from the mother’s tutelage in 2006, but another judge ruled against him. However, the court did appoint Janice McLaughlin as a guardian of the child’s legal interests.

The father continued to push for some changes in the way his daughter was educated.

“[Mr. Kurowski] believes that exposure to other points of view will decrease Amanda’s rigid adherence to her mother’s religious beliefs and increase her ability to get along with others and to function in a world which requires some element of independent thinking and tolerance for different points of view,” Judge Sadler’s ruling said.

The ruling quoted Mrs. McLaughlin as saying the child “appeared to reflect the mother’s rigidity on questions of faith.” The child would “be best served by exposure to different points of view at a time in her life when she must begin to critically evaluate multiple systems of belief and behavior,” it added.

The ruling also said Amanda told a counselor she was distressed by her father’s refusal to accept her religious beliefs and that “his choice to spend eternity away from her proves that he does not love her as much as he says he does.”

According to the brief filed by the child’s mother, Mrs. McLaughlin dismissed critical evidence and key witnesses in the case because they were “connected to Christianity.”

When the mother tried to give the guardian material on home-schooling, Mrs. McLaughlin reportedly said: “I don’t want to hear it. It’s all Christian-based.”

Mrs. McLaughlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Douglas Napier, senior ADF counsel, suggested the court has a bias against Christianity.

“What if this were Muslims who don’t want their children exposed to infidel thoughts?” he asked. “Can a judge come into my home — even if my wife and I agree to home-school our children — and say it’s to their best interest to put them in government schools?”

He added: “Does anybody seriously believe a public school will broaden this girl’s views on comparative religious thought? The schools are the number-one censors of religious thought.”

New Hampshire state law mandates the judge must find some evidence of harm to a child before removing her from a home-school environment, Mr. Napier said.

“The judge seems to have some allergic reactions to the fact this talented 10-year-old girl has made some decisions on her faith,” he said. “The judge didn’t consider and weigh the constitutional rights of the mother to raise the child in the way she sees fit.”

Elizabeth Donovan, attorney for the child’s father, said the father is basically objecting to the type of home-schooling Amanda is receiving.

“She is a beautiful, brilliant 10-year-old girl,” Ms. Donovan said. “Her classroom was the corner of her mother’s bedroom and a computer screen. She was not having interaction with other children, no group dynamic, no opportunity to share with other students in a day-to-day school setting.

“If she was excelling in a home setting, what might she do in a broader, more challenging public school setting?”

Ms. Donovan also denied that the court was anti-religious or illegitimately intruding into a family issue, noting that it was a custody dispute in which the parents had asked the court to intervene.

“It has been conveyed [that] the court is reaching into this family’s life and plucking the child out of her home,” the attorney said, adding the mother had earlier agreed to allow the court to decide the child’s educational future. “There have been three counselors for this child and all have recommended public school.”

Mike Donnelly, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va., called the judge’s ruling “unreasonable and inappropriate.”

“The fact that the court talks about the religion of the child and says it thinks the child ought to be in public school because she needs to be socialized shows they have overstepped their authority, which is troubling,” he said. “The court cannot just on its own pull opinions out of the air.

“A lot of single moms are concerned about this case because their ex-husbands could use the home-schooling issue to get back at them as has happened in this case,” he added. “And now 10-year-olds can’t have firm religious convictions?”

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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