A Quick and Dirty Primer on HSLDA

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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.

Early Days

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Connecting Homeschooling and Religious Abuse

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on April 1, 2013.

I was asked a very good question by a homeschooler recently and figured I’d answer it here as well, expanding on it a little bit. The essence of that question (as I understood it) was “Why are you including homeschooling in your discussion of religious abuse? Aren’t those two separate things that you’re mistakenly combining?”

I guess the pattern and argument for why I include them together is very clear to me but I can see how most people would likely view them as two separate things. After all, abuse in a religious context can certainly occur without homeschooling ever being in the picture (Ex. See Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal), and homeschooling can be done without ever even having religion involved, not to mention religious abuse. Homeschooling and child maltreatment based on extreme (and in my opinion pretty warped) interpretations of Christianity (what I’m calling “religious abuse” for the sake of simplicity here) certainly do not have to be connected, and obviously curtailing the former would not stamp out the latter. So why would I be talking like this, like they’re connected? Is it because I am mistaken, somehow conflating factors, or because in some ways they really and truly are?

First off, let me say that I too wish that the issue of religious abuse could be decoupled from homeschooling (which I think is a legitimate and respectable educational option), but I don’t think it can be done as it currently stands. They have become intertwined.

I think that there are some important links and patterns that once recognized, change everything, but if I don’t highlight the pattern of what I see, I imagine it’s easy to conclude that I am just mistaken or generalizing based on my own personal experience. As it is, it’s also easy for me to assume that others will automatically see this system and to get frustrated when people don’t. Then I remember that everyone’s lived experience is a bit different and that I have also read and researched a heck of a lot on this topic in addition to having the lived experience of growing up in it. Additionally, I had six years of training (bachelors in political science and master’s degree in public policy) that taught me how to use certain tools, methods, frameworks, and analysis techniques. So here’s my “policy nerd” reasoning:

If you look at the individual or family level, homeschooling looks like a mishmash of various styles based on personal choice, varying from family to family. The pattern is not very apparent (and I would reach the same conclusion that these are two separate topics) but if you look at it at a system level the situation becomes stark (and to me very disturbing).

Homeschooling started out as a way to “liberate” children from authoritarian and rote desk-based learning, but leadership of the movement has been hijacked and become the main socio-political apparatus of a fringe group that has some very extreme practices and aims and has grown very politically powerful due to this takeover of homeschooling leadership. I mean just look at what kind of stuff the HSLDA advocates for with its dues money and the radical bent of its leaders. For brevity’s sake I will only list five things:

(1) They have said that “everyone” should have the right to homeschool, not making formal distinctions for convicted abusers or others who would not pass a background check or ever be seen fit to teach other people’s children.

(2) They have advocated for what is essentially a dismantling of the child welfare system and an expansion of parental rights in a way that essentially amounts to “ownership” of children, as opposed to simply having and carrying out a duty to raise and protect your offspring.

(3) They have called for a parental rights amendment to the United States constitution essentially saying that parents should not have checks or balances from outside entities. They ignore and paper over the unfortunate yet widely known fact that not all parents are fit or have their children’s best interests in mind and that absolutely awful things can and do happen when there is no mechanism to discern or intervene when things have gone wrong within a family.

(4) The HSLDA has funneled homeschoolers’ dues money and aptitude for activism and volunteerism into fielding political candidates such as Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Todd Akin and supporting others with similar radical socio-political agendas. (This has not just been about homeschooling deregulation either. These politicians’ records and agendas regarding family planning, women’s rights, gay people’s rights, religious freedom, and rape have been clear.)

(5) HSLDA fearmongering and political activism has helped them keep their coffers full and our nation awkwardly keeping company with only Somalia and South Sudan when it comes to not ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The whole recent debacle with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was similar.

So at first this stuff just seems weird, right? I mean why might homeschooling have anything to do with gay people or rights for the disabled or the idea that ordinary children should being treated like actual people deserving of similar protections to any other American citizen? Well, the short answer is it certainly doesn’t need to (well, except that homeschooling might be a desirable option for a disabled kid, or that homeschooling in certain circumstances is used to protect children). The thing is, if you are a fearful conspiracy theorist who also believes that you are the new set of God’s chosen people and you must “take back” our nation so that everyone can adhere to the most fundamentalist interpretations of biblical law, apparently these things have a lot more in common with homeschooling than first meets the eye. Homeschooling is one of the main tools to be used in this agenda. Additionally, if you believe in this stuff, you also think that all the “unbelievers” are out to take your homeschooling away and there is a good chance they are being led by Satan himself in an effort to do so, and as such they must be fought hard, smashed into the ground. If you look at the world this way, the crazy stuff suddenly makes perfect sense. The odd political advocacy goals of the homeschooling leadership suddenly make sense too.

I think Anderson Cooper’s incredulity at Michael Farris and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities issue properly expresses what a normal person’s perspective might be when encountering this form of extremism, but the fact is we need to understand it and we also need to do something about it.

Things that normal homeschooling parents might want (opportunities for seamless and easy transitions into and out of public schools, the ability to participate and use public education resources on an “a la carte” basis, assistance with academic subjects that are not their forte, structures that make sure homeschooling kids at least know as much as their public school counterparts and are being given due credit for it, and an option for their kids to join local school sports teams) are not being advocated for by these people. The fringe doesn’t want these things. They want total control over children’s minds, bodies, and souls for their “holy” fight.

Under their leadership, homeschooling is not an educational choice. Instead it is pushed as being a lifestyle but it is really about using people as a culture wars tool. You soon learn that it is ultimately not about having a happy family life but rather about fulfilling “duties” with hope of rewards for it in heaven. I am not even going to get into how certain pastors and homeschool leaders are getting rich and powerful leading this movement. I will say that homeschooling of this sort is ultimately not about the children except that they are seen as tools in this crusade and so that is why it is seen as good to have or adopt as many of them as possible. They are weapons of sorts. This is so bad for children. I cannot overstate how bad this is for children (even when they seem to obey with a smile all the time).

This is why so many grown kids from this movement have totally rebelled against it and anything that even remotely looks like it and why others stay in, don’t question, and operate essentially as automatons working towards the objective. It hurts people in different ways and it’s why the former fundamentalist homeschool kids I know joke about whether someone “is still drinking the kool-aid” or not. It is why so many of us have “health problems” stemming from the years of being threatened, coerced, and told we were not measuring up to being what our parents were told they needed to craft us into if they were “Godly.” Yeah. Like that wouldn’t leave almost anyone with some issues.

I know plenty of homeschooling families definitely don’t buy into this extreme worldview and in fact are just as horrified by it all as I am. They just want to educate their children as best as they are able and enjoy family life. They don’t have some rabid agenda that requires building an “army.” They are more normal than that. The problem is that the crazy is louder than them, so the crazy gets heard and they get ignored or just lumped in and expected to put up with the crazy, as infuriating as that is.

So the bottom line is that an extreme fringe wing of the Christian religious right has taken over the homeschool movement leadership and continues to mold homeschooling as they see fit. They have turned something that was meant to liberate children into something that is often horribly oppressive. This is why the two issues cannot be decoupled – homeschooling is successfully being used as a powerful tool by these people, no matter how many kids their power grab disguised as “advice” hurts.

Anyway, I’m hoping this helps explain why both the religious abuse and homeschooling components are connected, and why I find that discussing them in tandem, with caveats, is the best approach to use when discussing this complicated issue.

I am not criticizing homeschooling as an educational option when I do this. In fact, I think this extreme fundamentalist homeschooling agenda is ultimately as toxic to “real” homeschooling (in all its various forms) as it has been to kids who grew up within this sort of damaging environment. If homeschoolers want to be associated with quality then they absolutely need to make sure they don’t sit back while people with extreme agendas claim to speak for them.

I think right now there is not much public awareness of these connections or how these extreme ideological agendas influence homeschooling (or our nation) as a whole, but in addition to needing to draw a distinction in motivations for homeschooling (and there are a wide range), there is also a huge need for responsible homeschoolers to “take back” the homeschooling movement leadership from the people who see it as a power and “culture wars” indoctrination tool rather than a way to give their kids the best skills and opportunities. I am not maligning homeschooling. I do not have a problem with homeschooling. I do have a problem with the current leadership of the homeschooling movement.

It is the real gorilla in the room.