One Friday afternoon, Betty Ogletree’s daughter RaMae came home in tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” RaMae cried, as Ogletree remembers it. RaMae was a straight-A fourth grader at Watauga Elementary School, a public K-5 in the bucolic town of Abingdon in southwest Virginia. But in a community where most families trumpeted their conservative Christianity, she was marked as an outsider for her lack of belief in the Gospel of Jesus. “Can you please homeschool me?” her mother recalls her pleading.
The bullying started in first grade, when Ogletree’s daughter’s classmates started pressuring her to attend a Good News Club, an after-school Bible class intended to indoctrinate young children in a conservative form of evangelical Christianity. Until 2001, Good News Clubs were generally excluded from public schools out of concern that their presence would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. But a Supreme Court ruling that year, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, deemed their presence in public schools legal.
According to Ogletree, the club’s appearance at her daughter’s public elementary school had an immediate impact. Most of the girls RaMae considered her friends signed up for the Good News Club on Tuesday afternoons. Lunchtime conversations quickly started to revolve around God and Jesus. RaMae, who had been raised with a sense of skepticism about conservative religious doctrine, made an effort to stand up for her own beliefs, and she resisted her friends’ repeated efforts to recruit her to the club. One day, however, the girls decided on an aggressive new tactic. They took away RaMae’s juice and told her they wouldn’t give it back until she sang a song about Jesus.
“This is the day my child came home and collapsed in a pile of tears on my couch,” Ogletree says. “I said, ‘No more!’ I started making phone calls and plans.’”
First, Ogletree complained to the administration. But she felt they sided with the children attending the club. “It figures,” she says ruefully. “At the school entryway there’s a large sign that spells it out, ‘In God We Trust.’”
So Ogletree made the decision to homeschool. “While some tend to see religious bullying as a ‘right,’ it is at the heart [the same as] every other kind of bullying—mean, cruel, and without forethought,” Ogletree says. “There are children committing suicide all over the US because of bullying. I refuse to let my child become a statistic.”
“I could have brought in the ACLU,” Ogletree adds, explaining why she didn’t press the administration harder on the issue. “But in this area it would have caused a shit storm and I didn’t want to put my family through that.”
There is an idea in our culture, planted and carefully tended by culture warriors on the right, that America’s public schools are godless. And most people have the impression that homeschooling is mainly for religious fundamentalists and other extremists who want to shield their children from the perceived secularism of public education. But Ogletree and her family are part of a small but growing group that is moving in the exact opposite direction. Dismayed with the overt religiosity and faith-based pressure they encounter in their public schools, they are opting to homeschool. And they are anything but extremists.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 3.4 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 are educated at home—or approximately 1.7 million children. The NCES cites religion as a motivator in approximately 65 percent of those families. Other estimates are even higher. In a 2006-2007 survey by the US Department of Education, 83 percent of homeschooling parents cited a desire to provide religious and moral instruction.
It is difficult to estimate the numbers of families homeschooling for the opposite reason—because of religious intrusion into their public schools. According to Ryan Stollar, Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, an educational nonprofit providing support to homeschooling families, this segment of the homeschooling population has been sorely neglected. “Conservative Christians dominate homeschooling,” he says, “and they intentionally exclude non-Christians from state organizations and local co-ops. So researchers have great difficulty reaching them through the normal networks.”
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Among the many factors that came together in making the Ogletrees’ experience in Virginia possible, the most important by far was a transformation in the judicial landscape originating in the United States Supreme Court. While the media concentrated on political campaigns, the religious right worked to advance its agenda through the courts. By the start of the 21st century, their efforts had begun to pay off.
Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion on the 2001 Good News Club case opened the door to a revision of the judicial theory governing what’s known as church-planting in public schools—that is, turning public school facilities over to churches for nominal rent or no rent at all. Legal advocacy groups promptly marched through that door. Exploiting the Court’s decision, they pushed cases through the lower courts that further undermined Establishment Clause concerns that had previously impeded efforts to plant churches in public schools. As a consequence, there is now a growing network of churches operating inside public schools facilities, effectively subsidized by the taxpayer. In some communities, nearly every public elementary, middle and high school is turned into a church on Sundays.
For parents such as April, a 31-year-old mother of two living in Springfield, Missouri, the appearance of an evangelical church inside her child’s public school represented an unconstitutional entanglement between church and school. (April does not feel comfortable using her real name, as she still lives in the community.)
Not long after the Red Tree Church started holding Sunday services at April’s child’s public school, the Willard Orchard Hills Elementary School, pamphlets advertising the church started coming home with the kids on a weekly basis. According to April, the church set up promotional tables at meet-the-teacher nights and during school fairs. At these events, church staff invited parents to Sunday services and encouraged kids to join the youth ministry. The church also put up notices advertising church services on the school’s digital board.
“This is a publicly funded school, and here they are sending home these religious materials,” says April. “It just seemed to inappropriate! How is it right that the taxpayer is paying for the building, the water, the electricity, and their publicity, and sending information about the church home with my kid?”
Even worse, April says, the administration seemed to sanction the church’s proselytizing activities. “At one point, the superintendent sent around an e-mail asking everyone to pray for a particular child,” April recalls. “When you as the superintendent are sending out e-mails saying ‘God bless’ and things of that nature, you are indicating to people who don’t share your religious perspective that they are second-class citizens.”
When asked for comment, Willard Orchard Hills Superintendent Kent Medlin asserted that “Red Tree has been a respectful and welcome group for our district,” noting that written materials offered to students from outside groups are “principal-approved.” But April says the entanglement between church and school seemed disrespectful of members of the community who are members of minority faiths.
“I identify as a Christian,” April notes. “But this is a total disregard for the separation of church and state.”
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Public school teachers and administrators have a right to their religion. But students have rights too, and one thing public-school students have is a right to an education free of religious coercion from representatives of the state. Teachers have a duty to deliver that.
Unfortunately, not all teachers are cognizant and respectful of this duty. That was the issue that persuaded Sarah Small, a mother of three from central Kansas, to homeschool. Small worked as an educator for children with disabilities and was employed by the school district. She had long observed a pervasive atmosphere of religious favoritism—according to her, several teachers seemed friendlier and more sympathetic toward the pupils in their classrooms who attended church.
But Small had always avoided conflict with her coworkers, and was especially fearful of speaking out about religious matters. “I didn’t want teachers to see me as a troublemaker or an outsider and refuse to work with me,” she says. “In fact,” she adds, “I was afraid that if I made the wrong people mad I could be fired.”
One especially egregious offender, in her mind, was a third-grade teacher who was also a Sunday-school teacher. “Half of her class was with her at church on weekends,” Small says. “I saw blatant favoritism of those kids. One day, I saw her give a child who had just been baptized a gift card that said, ‘Happy Baptism.’ She always seemed to have higher patience levels for kids who were members of her church. She seemed to give them more academic attention, and a greater number of chances at corrections when they made mistakes.”
Small recalls the example of two students in her class who had similar learning disabilities; Small was working with both, and was able to observe the teachers’ interactions with them up close. “The kid who was not attending church was often made to sit in an isolated place, separated from the rest of the students, and was sometimes treated harshly,” she says, “while the other one, who attended church, got to sit with the other students. If he didn’t finish his work on time, she would give him extra time.”
Small says this woman was a very good teacher. “But in this community, religion is so pervasive, and we are an openly atheist family. I know that as my son progressed at the school, that information would come out. My son is a high-energy kid, and I worried that she or others might use that as an excuse to label him ‘different’ or ‘a troublemaker’ as a way of punishing him for being a religious nonconformist.”
Like so many other parents, Small felt she had nowhere to turn to voice her concerns. “My hands were completely tied,” Small says. “I couldn’t complain because of my job. So when we decided to homeschool, I just told the administration that we think this is best for our family and left it at that. I have familial ties to the school and the area, so we just kept it very simple.”
These days, instead of assisting students with disabilities, Small instructs her son from homeschooling curricula in math, reading, science and other topics. “I miss my job,” she says. “And income-wise, it was definitely an adjustment for our family. But I was happy to leave an atmosphere where religion was always going to be an issue.”
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Many parents who wish to homeschool must fulfill certain requirements, which vary dramatically by state. Thirty-six states require that parents teach certain subjects. While homeschooled students are largely exempt from assessment of their progress, those parents who wish to offer an education commensurate with that of the public school quickly find that home instruction can be as absorbing and time-consuming as any job.
“A lot of us ended up homeschooling as a worst-case scenario,” says Amy Cogswell, a mother from the suburb in central Ohio. “I wasn’t one of those people who had a baby and thought homeschooling would be sweet and wonderful. We felt like we were pushed into it because there wasn’t another option for us.”
It was the religious bullying that did it. Cogswell’s daughter’s troubles began in the second grade when a classmate told her she was going to hell. “At first my daughter brushed it off, but the bullying got worse,” says Cogswell. “Other kids would taunt her too. One day in the lunchroom, all the kids went around the table saying, ‘The Bible is real.’ My daughter defended herself saying, ‘It’s just a book of made-up stories!’ But she said the way the kids argued with her after that made her feel like they were ganging up on her.”
Things came to a head when one girl’s bullying became more aggressive. Previously, this girl had cornered Cogswell’s daughter and told her she was going to hell for nonbelief. But one day, she choked her.
According to Cogswell, the school responded to the choking incident by telling her that her daughter was “overly sensitive.” Cogswell and her family decided at that point to leave the school system. “I didn’t believe the school could guarantee my daughter’s safety. I did look into private school, but the ones around here cost at least $15,000 per year.” She says they couldn’t afford that.
“I could have stayed and fought for my daughter’s rights,” she concedes. “But I was vastly outnumbered by religious people, and honestly it wasn’t a fight I wanted to fight. It could have turned into an expensive, lengthy legal drama. So, given the options, homeschooling felt like the best choice.”
Some days, Cogswell blames herself. “It made me feel like it was my fault, because I chose to raise my daughter in a way that is not socially accepted around here,” she says. “Maybe it would have been easier if I had kept my own doubts about God to myself and just shut up and took her to church, like most of the other people around here do with their kids. But I wasn’t willing to make that concession and live in a way that didn’t reflect what I really believe. And,” she adds grimly, “I felt like my daughter was paying the price for that.”
How did the present level of religious involvement in public schools happen in a country whose Constitution is thought to guarantee equality of all, regardless of religious belief? Much of it is traceable to the unheralded success of religious advocacy groups on the religious right, working with what was, prior to Justice Scalia’s death, a majority on the Supreme Court that tended to agree with them on many key issues. Though the recent advances in same-sex marriage rights have led many observers to declare that the culture war has ended with victory on the left, in fact the religious right has benefitted from a string of judicial successes in recent decades that have enabled religious groups to enter the public schools under the specious title of “religious liberty.”
While a small number of school administrators welcome the new involvement of religion in public schools, many do not. School administrators are generally preoccupied with issues of budget, management, and curriculum, and are not eager to moderate the type of religious battles that erupt as a result of religious involvement in a diverse school community. Officials at the schools of Betty Ogletree, Sarah Small, and Amy Cogswell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While homeschooling families often connect with one another to offer their children opportunities for socialization and group learning, nonreligious homeschoolers often feel shut out. The religious homeschooling movement often encourages Christian homeschool groups to shun nonbelievers and members of non-Christian faiths. As Stollar points out, “They intentionally create walls to keep unbelievers out.”
A widely hailed leader of the Christian homeschooling movement, Gregg Harris, urged homeschooling groups to adopt statements of faith. “A disagreement over policy or doctrine or an aggressive intruder can mean a lot of problems for the group,” he wrote. “A statement of faith, which should be affirmed by any potential group leader, ought to be broad enough to include Christians who disagree on nonessential matters (such as eschatology), but narrow enough to exclude people from a non-evangelical framework or who hold abhorrent opinions.”
Micki Carr, a Georgia mother who decided to homeschool, in part because of a perceived bias in her kids’ public school, says that when she attends state homeschooling conventions, only a tiny number of the informational booths are nonsectarian. The overwhelming majority—“perhaps 95 percent,” she says—are geared toward evangelical Christian families.
“The hardest part of homeschooling is finding secular curriculum materials to teach science, as opposed to creationism,” she says. “That goes with history as well. It’s been rewritten. Even the math books include examples that are based on the Bible.”
Carr says that the local homeschool group, the Central Savannah River Area Home Education Association, used to make you sign a statement of faith. “Now it’s a statement of agreement that if you don’t agree with what they’re doing, you have to agree not to make a fuss,” she says. “We can leave the public school that has become too religious, but secular resources on this side are still sparse in comparison.”
Betty Ogletree has homeschooled long enough now to look back on the experience with the bemusement of distance. “It’s pretty weird to be living in the middle of the Bible Belt where most people think the public schools have no religion,” she says. “But here we are homeschooling because there’s too much. The irony is not lost on me!”