Monday, June 18, 2018
One of the first papers I published, after becoming a law professor, was about parents' rights -- both generally and in the education and medical-treatment-refusal contexts more specifically. It was called "Taking Pierce Seriously: The Family, Religious Education, and Harm to Children" (available here). Here is the abstract:
Many States exempt religious parents from prosecution, or limit their exposure to criminal liability, when their failure to seek medical care for their sick or injured children is motivated by religious belief. This paper explores the question what, if anything, the debate about these exemptions says about the state's authority to override parents' decisions about education, particularly religious education. If we accept, for example, that the state may in some cases require medical treatment for a child, over her parents' objections, to avoid serious injury or death, should it follow that it may regulate, or even forbid, a child's religious training or religious-school education to prevent an analogous, though perhaps less tangible, harm?
The Supreme Court famously proclaimed, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, that parents enjoy a fundamental right to direct and control the education of their children, but do we really accept, or even understand, the premises, foundations, and implications of this pronouncement? Recent calls for a thicker liberalism and for the harnessing of education to create truly liberal citizens make it all the more important that we take Pierce seriously. And if we do, it is suggested that state functionaries, guided and restrained by a proper humility about their authority and competence, should override parents' educational decisions only to prevent harm, carefully defined, to a child. The problem is, how do we define harm. This paper proposes that the content of religious instruction, traditions, or beliefs should not be viewed as harmful in the sense necessary to justify government second-guessing or supervention of parents' decisions about such instruction. In a free society, one that values religious freedom, the state should not entertain, let alone enforce, a belief that children would be better off without religious faith.
I took (and still hold) a strong view of parents' rights to direct and control the upbringing of their children and I disagreed with those scholars who contended that (a) it is a mistake to talk about "parents' rights" because no one has a "right" to control another person's upbringing and development, (b) that it is a concession -- but only that -- by the state that we presumptively defer to (most) parents' choices about their children's upbringing and education, and (c) that the transmission of traditional or otherwise illiberal religious views and positions by parents to children can "count" as a "harm" that warrants state interference with the parents' practices.
This is, again, still my view. That said, my impression is that -- in both the family-law and the constitutional-law fields -- the merits of the Pierce rule are quite contested and that many scholars hold the view that parents' power or authority to raise their children is merely delegated and should be subject to closer state supervision, in order to resist the successful transmission of illiberal or traditional religious views. That is, the Douglas view in Yoder seems more popular than the Pierce decision.
In recent days, there has been a lot of close attention paid to the gravity of the state's decision to separate parents and children for public-policy (or, as we are seeing now, in terrorem) reasons. I'm not an expert, but I'm inclined to agree with those who insist that it is unjust and unnecessary to have a blanket policy of separating and detaining the children of people who cross the border unlawfully and then present themselves for asylum consideration. One hope I have for this current debate is that it will remind people of the moral and constitutional significance of the parental/family relationship and that we'll see some re-consideration by parents'-rights skeptics.