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U.Va. Study Questions School Religious Exemption

Monday, Sep 17, 2012  |  Updated 1:57 PM EDT
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Study Questions School Religious Exemption

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Some Virginia children might not be getting any education because of the state's religious exemption from mandatory school attendance, according to a recent University of Virginia study.

Virginia doesn't require parents to provide any education to children who are granted religious exemptions. The statute also doesn't require exempted students to meet any educational requirements, according to the study by the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia law school.

"If children with religious exemptions are not receiving any education, it could well mean that the statute, as applied, impermissibly violates their fundamental right to an education under the Virginia Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional," the study said.

More than 7,000 children received religious exemptions, which are granted by local school districts, during the 2010-2011 school year.

"To put that number in perspective, 7,000 students is more students than are enrolled in three quarters of the school divisions in Virginia," said Andrew K. Block Jr., the clinic's director.

"It's more kids than are enrolled in Charlottesville," he said.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the department presumes that these students are getting some kind of home instruction. But there's no follow-up reporting.

Home-school advocates say the law is essential to preserving the rights of families who believe that any state control of their children's education would violate the tenets of their faith.

"This is a very serious decision, not something everyone should do," said Yvonne Bunn of the Home Educators Association of Virginia. "It is based on sincere religious conviction. If that's not the case, they need to just comply with the home-schooling law."

Parents who seek the exemption, Bunn said, "would probably rather go to jail rather than put their children in school, because they have very strong convictions that they're following what God has directed them to do."

Most of the school superintendents who responded to the survey said they had never denied a request for religious exemption, the study said.

"The overwhelming sentiment that I got was confusion, frustration, 'I'm glad someone's looking at this.' I think people were glad we were doing an in-depth study," said Christine Tschiderer, a 2012 law school student who worked on the study.

Block said he believes many school divisions approve most requested exemptions because they "feel like they lack the necessary guidance for testing the legitimacy of someone's religious beliefs."

Researchers hope policymakers will take a second look at the matter, given the number of children involved and the possibility that some are not getting any kind of education, Block said.

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