What are the limits of parental rights?

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.


  1. trucreep says

    There’s a case in Michigan right now where the ACLU is suing a school district because the children are basically not learning how to read – their proficiency is way below what it should be. It’s essentially being argued that they have a fundamental right to being able to read.

    This might tie in to these instances you detail by establishing a case law of sorts for basic things children should be taught.

  2. kevinalexander says

    Are you nuts? Teach kids to read? If they learned to read then they might find out that the bible doesn’t actually say what the pastor says it does.
    For centuries the church burned people at the stake just for translating the scriptures into a form that people could actually read.

  3. resident_alien says

    I know i’m a radical in that way,but I don’t think there is such a thing as parental rights.Or rather,that all parental rights are derived from parental obligations.The way I see it,you’ve brought a creature into this world who is,at first,utterly unable to survive without massive amounts of help,and who,unless taken proper care of,will remain that way-there have been cases of nine-year-olds who functioned on the level of pre-verbal toddlers.
    Regarding schooling,the legal situation in my country (Germany,if you must know) is that every child age six and over is to attend a public or private institution of learning and that parents who are in violation of this law will be fined,and ,after contious violation,jailed.Private schools have to meet certain standards of education or be closed down.Homeschooling is virtually unheard of,you’ll need a legion of lawyers before you can do that legally.
    German Godbots have actually demanded political asylum in the US,claiming religious persecution because the evil German Government wanted to corrupt their precious children with knowledge of their own bodies.(The bare basics of human reproduction are taught at primary school.Because we’re all godless Nazis or something…)
    I find our laws somewhat lacking,in that the standards for private schools should be overhauled (looking at you,Anthroposophists and Steiner-schools!) and that homeschooling should be permitted IF guidelines are followed and standards are met (no creationist crap,no stork-brings-babies-babble,no racist shit…)

  4. Pen says

    I don’t think there is such a thing as parental rights.Or rather,that all parental rights are derived from parental obligations

    I think I agree with that. But there is also the question of children’s rights. I’m pretty sure the available evidence suggests that harm has to be pretty extreme before removing children from their parents does them less harm than leaving them. It would be interesting to investigate the impact on children and families of social force – as when a medical intervention or educational regime are imposed on unwilling parents by the law. Note that I’m not saying it isn’t necessary, certainly better than the child dying, though I wonder about the cost. Admittedly, that’s not what Mano suggested. He called for a case against the school by the individual who suffered damage. That’s an interesting idea though I don’t know if it could work.

  5. smrnda says


    That’s what I think, and outside of the US, that viewpoint wouldn’t be considered so radical. In the US, religious practices tend to lend themselves towards authoritarian parenting styles and a sense that the family is this sacred, god-ordained institution, threatened by an evil, secular state threatening to teach kids opinions contrary to their parents. It also kind of goes along with the US belief that any private entity is ‘good’ (family, church or businesses) but that government institutions (which have checks and balances private ones do not) are somehow suspect.

  6. MNb says

    Dutch government has a governmental body consisting of inspectors for education. They visit schools – including religious ones – to check if the schools pass the minimal standards as set by the same government. Predictably there is sometimes political discussion, even in Dutch parliament, which standards are required. Several years ago a Dutch minister of Education suggested that Intelligent Design should be taught in biology class and was thoroughly booed. I am pretty sure other European countries have similar standards. So it really amazes me that the USA are so negligent in this respect.
    What’s typical Dutch is that religious schools are publicly financed too. There are a few private schools, but they are very expensive. You have to think of fees of 10 000 Euro a year; hardly anybody can afford that. Even homeschooling is allowed. But private schools and homeschooling are subject to those inspectors as well. So basically a minimum level of education is enforced by law.
    Orthodox believers like the Hassidim do have the right to organize their own schooling, provided it fulfills the governmental demands. Government has nothing to say about the religious aspects. This one


    is highly orthodox-reformed. A family in my street, when I was still living in Zaandam, send their children to this school. They had to travel two times two hours a day. When I woke up they walked along my house to catch the bus. Travel expenses were compensated by government.
    Still this school has to teach evolution theory, to name something, simply because it’s mandatory. Recently there have been some debates if orthodox schools like this one may fire homosexual teachers. It has been decided that it’s discrimination; one orthodox school has been forced to take such a teacher back.
    Maybe this explains why evolution theory is widely more accepted in Europe.

  7. says

    Framing the debate in terms of ‘rights’ can be misleading, because it’s unclear which of two different but related schemata is being used.

    One schema is that the state confers legal or moral rights on citizens and then has to decide in particular cases, how one person’s rights should be balanced against another’s.

    The other schema is a more fundamental one that assumes that in a democracy, each person can exercise their liberty in whatever way they wish, so long as they don’t infringe the liberty of others. One duty of the state/community is to defend that principle; another is to resolve problems that arise because of it.

    In England, parents have a legal duty to cause their child to receive an education suitable to his/her age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs s/he might have. In other words, an education suitable to the individual child. Local authorities can investigate and take action in respect of any child who might not be receiving a suitable education, but only ‘if it appears’ that the parent is in breach of the law. In other words the local authority has to have reasonable cause to suspect that the child’s legal rights or natural liberty are being infringed.

    What constitutes a suitable education is a moot point. Clearly children are being disadvantaged if they are consistently deprived of the opportunity of learning how the world works, or acquiring basic skills such as reading, but it doesn’t follow that the state is in a good position to decide what children should learn and when. Indeed, there are very good reasons why the state should involve itself in education as little as possible; the risk of manipulation of the education system for political ends is considerable.

    In the case of children getting a religious education and nothing else, it seems reasonable to refer to Article 29 of the UNCRC whether or not it’s enshrined in law, which recognises that all of a child’s abilities and aptitudes should be nurtured and that they have a good awareness of the world they live in.

    It’s easy to assume that if a child gets a very narrow education during childhood then all hope is lost. It isn’t. Some children are enrolled in state schools for over a decade but learn little. Others rebel against a restrictive upbringing at the first opportunity. Most of us keep learning throughout our lives, through one means or another. Sometimes we learn more out of school than we did in it.

    Basically, the content of education is, and always will be, up for negotiation. Personally, I think that’s a good thing because it lessens the risk of a monoculture that puts communities at risk if their environment changes.

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