A ten-year–old girl who’s been home-schooled since first grade, has started attending public school in Meredith.
There’s nothing odd in that, particularly. Except in this case, a judge ordered her enrollment. And the case has sparked a controversy over the First Amendment right to religious freedom.
New Hampshire Public Radio correspondent Shannon Mullen has the story.
On a chilly morning outside Interlakes Elementary School in Meredith, students file into the building, back to their routine after summer vacation.
Over the intercom, an Assistant Principal leads the school in saying the pledge of allegiance.
For one child enrolled here, though, this routine is anything but.
Ten-year-old Amanda Kurowski is used to being taught at home by her mother, Brenda Voydatch. Bible study was part of her curriculum until this year, when a judge ordered Voydatch to enroll Amanda in public school.
“The court has stepped in and said that this child and the mother are too religious and the child needs to be taken out of that environment and exposed to other worldviews, and that is a constitutional problem for all of us,” says John Anthony Simmons, Voydatch’s attorney.
He took the case pro bono, after the ruling, when he got a call from the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“The idea here that home schooling is this cloistered environment in which the mother only breathes her own worldview into this young girl’s head is simply wrong,” says Mike Donnelly, a staff attorney for the Christian group.
Donnelly says the court’s order reinforces negative stereotypes.
“I really do think in custody disputes homeschooling can be used by one party to attack the other party on another underlying issue.”
Amanda Kurowski’s parents divorced just after she was born. They agreed to share decision-making, and if they came to an impasse, to resolve it through a mediator.
They initially agreed to Amanda’s home-schooling, but her father, Martin Kurowski, now wants his daughter to attend public school.
He also wants his preference to matter as much as his ex-wife’s.
Kurowski’s attorney, Elizabeth Donovan, says he’s concerned about his daughter’s overall development.
“The issue is not just how she tests, but the other things that come with a public education – the benefits of group learning, group problem solving,” Donovan explains.
Brenda Voydatch tried to assuage her ex-husband’s concerns about adequate socialization; she enrolled Amanda in Spanish, Phys-ed and other classes at Interlakes, in addition to her church and other activities outside school.
Still, Mr. Kurowski objects, and his lawyer, Ms. Donovan, says it’s not about religion.
“He respects his child’s faith – he’s been to the church, he supports her in that,” Donovan explains. “We’re interested in pursuing the best interests of this child, and my client believes her best interests are served overall by attending public school.”
Amanda’s mother thinks that could undermine her daughter’s faith.
When the case went to court, the judge sided with Mr. Kurowski. The court order says the child is likeable, social, and intellectually at or superior to her grade level.
The judge’s order goes on to say, “Amanda’s vigorous defense of her religious beliefs… suggests strongly that she has not had the opportunity to seriously consider any other point of view.”
Mr. Simmons, Voydatch’s attorney, says the ruling steps on his client’s first amendment right to religious freedom.
“Does anyone really believe that this child is going to be exposed to a diversity of religious thought in secular government schools? Really, the court has stated a preference for changing the education to a secular environment.”
Harvard Family Law Professor Jeanie Suk says Simmons is wrong.
“In a case that involves religion it can often be perceived that some kind of constitutional issue is lurking in court’s reasoning,” Suk explains.
But in this case, she adds, the court is not denying parents rights to raise a child as they see fit.
“They’re resolving a conflict between two individuals who themselves can’t come to a resolution. So in that case a court has broad discretion to decide what is in the best interests of the child,” says Suk.
Just before school started this month, the judge denied an emergency motion to postpone Amanda’s enrollment while her mother appeals the order.
If the judge denies that appeal, Mrs. Voydatch says she’ll try to take her case to the state supreme court.