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Religious exemptions law has gaps

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Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2012 2:19 am | Updated: 4:00 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

More than 7,000 children in Virginia potentially receive no education?

And the state is OK with that?

That’s how many children do not go school under a state law allowing education exemptions for religious reasons, according to a new report by the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law.

This does not just mean an exemption from public education.

It potentially means exemption from any education.

“Virginia is the only state in the nation … that does not require any educational alternatives for children who receive religious exemptions from compulsory school attendance,” says the clinic’s website (http://www.law.virginia.edu/html/news/2012_fall/child_advocacy_report.htm).

If a parent believes that the education his child will receive at a secular school will undermine the family’s religious beliefs, then a religious exemption can be justified.

But as the study points out, most states handle these exemptions through their home-schooling programs, ensuring that children get instruction at home or through supplemental programs. Virginia does not.

Obviously, not all exempted children bypass education entirely. Many will receive schooling at home or at religious institutions. But because there is no requirement to do so, the law potentially leaves thousands of children without an alternative education.

As the report points out, that potentially is in conflict with the state Constitution, which treats education as a fundamental right available to all.

The report is not intended to criticize the intent of the law or question the good faith of the legislators who wrote it, the parents who invoke it or the school divisions that implement it, said the clinic’s report summary.

But it should make legislators, parents and schools take a good, hard look at whether the law is working properly.

For instance, under an attorney general’s ruling dating to 1984, schools are supposed to review each exemption annually to see whether circumstances might have changed and the exemption no longer should be granted. These reviews seldom occur.

In fact, it may be that little review is occurring even at the time of the initial exemption: The study found that schools granted exemptions in almost every case. That might be because almost every request was justified, or it might be that “schools don’t have the capacity, guidance or incentive to conduct any deeper inquiry …,” said Andrew Block, assistant professor and clinic director.

This has all the hallmarks of an unfunded mandate, a duty imposed on schools but without addition of sufficient funds to do the job.

Religious exemptions can be justified. But the report makes a strong case for re-examining the law and its performance to determine if it is working as intended. Presently, it would seem there are too many gaps in the implementation of the law — as well as large loopholes for outright abuse of its good intentions.