The balance between the rights of parents and the state to determine the wellbeing of young children is a delicate one. Few would argue that the rights of the parents cannot be infringed on in any way. If a child’s life and health is endangered because of abuse or neglect, the state should and does have the right to intervene.
But as is usually the case, when religion enters into the picture, Religion-based practices tend to be given more leeway. But even then the rights of parents are not unlimited. I have written before of the terrible tragedies that have ensued when parents have withheld urgent medical treatment from their children because of the crazy belief that their god will heal their child and that prayer and faith is all that is needed. Parents have been prosecuted in such cases and they clearly should not have the right to physically harm or endanger the lives of their children.
But what about mental harm? For example, should parents have the right to complete control over their child’s education even if that education is so narrow and extreme or even non-existent that the child’s ability to have a full life in adulthood is seriously compromised? This is relevant in the case of families that choose to home-school their children or insular religious communities like the Jewish Hassidim whose schools provide little or no secular education, instead filling almost the entire school day with useless religious studies?
The US Supreme Court has said that states can set reasonable educational standards that must be complied with by parents. In the 1967 case Runyon v. McCrary (1976), justice Potter Stewart writing for the majority in the US Supreme court said:
The Court has repeatedly stressed that while parents have a constitutional right to send their children to private schools and a constitutional right to select private schools that offer specialized instruction, they have no constitutional right to provide their children with private school education unfettered by reasonable government regulation.
The opinion referred to an earlier ruling Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) that said:
As recently as last Term, the Court reemphasized the legitimacy of the State’s concern for enforcing minimal educational standards, Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 613 (1971). Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), lends no support to the contention that parents may replace state educational requirements with their own idiosyncratic views of what knowledge a child needs to be a productive and happy member of society; in Pierce, both the parochial and military schools were in compliance with all the educational standards that the State had set, and the Court held simply that, while a State may posit such standards, it may not preempt the educational process by requiring children to attend public schools.
So the issue with the education in Hassidic schools is whether they meet New York state standards. If they do, then the standards seem to be so low as to be worthless. If they don’t, if one of the people who moved out of the community were to sue these schools for damages, they may have a good chance of improving the situation for those children still trapped within the community.