A Quick and Dirty Primer on HSLDA, By Kathryn Brightbill
Kathryn Brightbill blogs at The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person.
Did you find your way to Homeschoolers Anonymous because of the press coverage of the Wunderlich and Twelve Tribes cases in Germany? Or did the Romeike case in the United States send you hunting for more info on this HSLDA group that keeps showing up in news stories?
Then this story is for you.
It is in no way meant to be exhaustive, just to provide basic information for people who did not grow up in the homeschooling world and are unfamiliar with HSLDA’s activism.
HSLDA was founded by Michael Farris in 1983. At that time, homeschooling as a movement was in its infancy, and because parents were concerned about the legality, the idea of a legal defense and advocacy organization dedicated to homeschooling was an attractive one.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, HSLDA was involved in liberalizing the homeschooling laws in states across the US, mobilizing homeschoolers to bombard their legislators with phone calls, telegrams in the early days, faxes, and emails. During this time period most of the restrictions and regulations on homeschooling were removed so that in many states there is now minimal oversight of homeschooling families to ensure that children are receiving an education.
In 1991, HSLDA went international with the formation of HSLDA Canada.
A turning point came in 1994 when HSLDA used the power of its network of homeschooling parents to fight against H.R. 6, a federal bill that said that non-public schools applying for federal funds must have teachers certified in the subject matter in which they teach. For reasons that are not entirely clear since the bill was about non-public schools that received federal money—an issue completely unrelated to homeschooling, HSLDA decided that H.R. 6 meant that the federal government would require homeschoolers to be certified teachers. Although many other homeschool leaders disagreed with HSLDA’s analysis and did not see any threat to homeschooling in the bill, nevertheless, HSLDA mobilized tens of thousands of homeschoolers to contact congress and in the process discovered just how powerful a political network they had built.
HSLDA Branches Out: Non-homeschool-related activities
When you are an organization that is run by conservative members of the religious right (Farris was an attorney with Concerned Women for America who fought against the Equal Rights Amendment, former HSLDA attorney Doug Phillips is the son of Constitution Party presidential candidate and former Nixon administration member Howard Phillips, to give a few examples), and you have built a powerful grassroots network that will do your bidding, the temptation to limit your work to homeschooling is evidently too great to resist.
Coming on the heels of the H.R. 6 fight in 1994, HSLDA touts their involvement in killing the US ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a human rights treaty.
The only UN member states that have not ratified CEDAW are Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States.
In 1995, HSLDA took a case in Virginia, In re Brianna, where the parents were charged with neglect for refusing to vaccinate their child. HSLDA successfully argued that the parents should be given a religious exemption from providing childhood vaccinations to their child. HSLDA’s timeline of events does not indicate that this case had any connection to homeschooling.
In a case where the only relationship to homeschooling was that the party involved was a former homeschooler, HSLDA and Michael Farris took on the case of Michael New, a soldier who refused to wear a UN beret as part of United Nations peacekeeping actions. In a 1995 Court Report cover story, the case was described as, “Michael New v. the New World Order,” a reference to fundamentalist Christian beliefs about the End Times and the United Nations as ushering in a one world government that would lead to the rise of the antichrist.
In 1997, a constitutional amendment drafted by HSLDA, the “American Sovereignty Amendment, H.J.R. 83,” was introduced by Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth (R-ID). The amendment, which did not go anywhere, would have changed the Constitution so that treaties were no longer on the same level as the US Constitution. The text of the amendment is not available online, but it is evident from HSLDA’s own description that it would have had significant effects on the United States’ ability to meet its treaty obligations.
By 2003, HSLDA decided to organize young homeschool students into Generation Joshua to create a generation of young, politically active kids who could provide the manpower on the ground in conservative political campaigns. Generation Joshua was designed to build a second generation of kids to carry forth the culture war battles of their parents.
In 2004, despite the fact that it has not even the slimmest connection to homeschooling, HSLDA backed a constitutional amendment to ban both same-sex marriage and civil unions.
Another way that HSLDA expanded their reach beyond homeschooling was with the 2007 launch of ParentalRights.org, an advocacy organization devoted to expanding parental rights free from government interference. This includes advocating for a Parental Rights Amendment that would subject all laws relating to parental decisions on the upbringing, care, and education of their children to the highest level of judicial scrutiny, a standard that is extremely difficult to overcome, and which would remove almost all legal protections from children.
HSLDA was also instrumental in blocking United States ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, despite the fact that the treaty mirrors the Americans with Disabilities Act.
On the treaty front, HSLDA has also led the fight against the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among their objections to the treaty is that it would prevent minors from being sentenced to life in prison—something that the international community agrees is unacceptable but that the US still practices. They also object to the fact that the convention uses the best interest of the child standard in determining matters involving children, even though the best interest of the child standard is the guiding standard in American family law already. Furthermore, they oppose the idea that children should have a right to be heard in decisions relating to their interests.
The only countries that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States. HSLDA bears much of the responsibility for America’s failure to ratify the treaty.
HSLDA and Abuse
Starting from 1992 on, HSLDA’s timeline lists their involvement in an increasing number of cases where homeschool families were accused of child abuse unrelated to homeschooling itself. Further, HSLDA’s timeline credits their work with member families in defeating Virginia Senate Bill 621, a bill that did not involve homeschooling but rather the standard of proof in child abuse investigations.
They also brag on their timeline about their role in killing a 1997 bill in New Hampshire that would have defined isolation of children as a form of abuse, because they believe it could apply to homeschoolers. This certainly suggests that HSLDA believes that some homeschool parents isolate their children to the point that a bill designed to protect children from abuse would apply, and thinks this is okay.
This is particularly relevant given the accusations against the Wunderlich family—HSLDA says that the family wasn’t abusive, but HSLDA doesn’t think that extreme isolation is abuse.
In his 1996 novel, Anonymous Tip, a story intended to dramatize the position that Child Protective Services are a threat to families, Michael Farris repeatedly has his protagonists insist that spankings that leave bruises are not necessarily evidence of abuse.
For more on HSLDA’s handling of child abuse cases, see Libby Anne’s extensive documentation on HSLDA and abuse, including their fight against child abuse reporting, the time they called a man who caged his children a “hero”, and their opposition to Florida’s proposed law that would have defined leaving bruises and welts on children as abuse.
This is not to say that HSLDA supports child abuse. As Libby Anne explains, it is entirely possible to abhor abuse while still taking actions that end up protecting abusers.
Michael Farris’ other non-homeschooling activism
An overview of HSLDA would be incomplete without noting at least some of Michael Farris’ other activism during his time with HSLDA. In addition to an unsuccessful 1994 run for Lt. Governor of Virginia, Farris was the founder of the Madison Project, a political action committee that bundles small donations in support of right wing candidates. Furthermore, his support of right wing candidates extended to backing John Ashcroft for President in 1998 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 (chastising other leaders of the right for not backing Huckabee sooner), and has mobilized Generation Joshua in support of Ken Cucinelli’s run for governor of Virginia.
As already mentioned, before founding HSLDA, Farris worked with Concerned Women For America in fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment that would have guaranteed equal constitutional rights for women. Also in the early 1980s, he worked with the Moral Majority in Washington state to try to get sex education materials removed from libraries.
Farris has also taken to fighting other broader culture war issues after the founding of HSLDA. Writing an amicus brief on behalf of Patrick Henry College in the Hollingsworth v. Perry (Prop. 8) United States Supreme Court case, he argued that if the government recognized marriage between two people of the same sex it would make it harder for Patrick Henry College to continue with their current (discriminatory) policies.
More recently, he spoke at the founding meeting of Trail Life, USA, the scouting group that was formed as an alternative to the Boy Scouts after the Boy Scouts stopped kicking gay kids out of the Scouts. The head of the Trail Life organization has gone on record stating that he believes that parents accepting their gay children is a form of child abuse. Farris, for his part, seems to agree with the head of Trail Life that gay children should be subjected to reparative therapy, a form of therapy condemned by every major psychiatric organization because it is psychologically harmful to the point of being abusive.
While HSLDA may have started as a homeschooling advocacy organization, over time they have shifted and expanded their focus, fighting against international treaties, expanded child abuse legislation, and fighting for broader religious right causes. They are an organization founded and led by religious right activists who treat homeschooling as yet another front in the ongoing culture wars.