Nearly one hundred years ago, the state of Texas required children to attend school, whether in public school, private school, or at home. Now, a state supreme court case may carve out a religious exemption to that requirement.
An activist lawsuit funded by the Home School Legal Defense Association, the case is part of a flood of religious-exemption lawsuits filed in the last few years. Since 2010, doctors have refused to treat the children of same-sex couples; pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions for HIV medications; nurses have refused to provide “morning after” pills to rape victims; multimillion-dollar corporations have refused to provide insurance coverage that might be used for contraception.
Indeed, while mainstream media has focused on wedding cakes and Kim Davis, religious exemptions have turned the American legal system into Swiss cheese.
This latest example is about the parameters of Texas’s home-school program, already one of the nation’s most permissive. Some 300,000 students are home-schooled in Texas. No specific curriculum is required, no registration is required, no testing is required, and no standards are set. Parents must only provide a “bona fide” education, whatever that means.
But they do have to provide something, which, it is alleged, the McIntyre family did not do for their five children (of nine total), who for two years were home-schooled in the back of a motorcycle dealership. “Our faith is foremost in our lives,” said Laura McIntyre in an affidavit. “And we find it very important that our children receive a faith-based education.”
This is probably the place to add some of the colorful, particular details that one only gets from reading court documents. According to the McIntyres, you see, this entire suit is a personal vendetta by the kids’ uncle Tracy, their father Michael’s twin brother who co-owned the motorcycle dealership until things went sour. Specifically, the McIntyres’ lawyers saw fit to inform the Texas Supreme Court, “On August 22, 2005, Tracy became infuriated with Laura at work and began screaming obscenities at her. When Michael intervened, Tracy assaulted him. Michael filed a criminal assault charge against Tracy that day. The McIntyre family war had begun.”
Good Christians all, no doubt.
According to the El Paso School District, however, this is a case of neglect. The McIntyres refused to “comply with Texas Education Agency standards” or certify that they were teaching “reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics, and a study of good citizenship.” That is the full level of detail the school district sought. No home visits, no curriculum requirements. And yet the McIntyres refused to provide it.
Why? Either because they weren’t providing any education at all, or their far-right lawyers told them it wasn’t any of the government’s business.
Meanwhile, one child ran away from home—to get an education, she said—and enrolled in public school, where she was placed two grades below her age level. Then the estranged Uncle Tracy provided some colorful details: All the kids were doing was singing songs. They never had homework. And the kicker, which has led media coverage of the case: They said they didn’t have to learn because they were about to be raptured anyway.
That was enough for the school district, which investigated the children for truancy. Because under the law, if they’re not getting home-schooled, they’re playing hooky. That’s when the McIntyres filed suit.
We don’t know if everything Tracy said is true, and the rapture claim is not in front of the Texas Supreme Court, which is instead reviewing an assortment of administrative questions and the controlling precedent on what, if anything, home-schoolers have to teach their kids.
What we do know is that the McIntyres and their activist lawyers have been radicalized. The Home School Legal Defense Association has stonewalled, simply stating that their clients are “in full compliance” with the law and refusing to provide any details. At one point, Laura McIntyre said it wouldn’t be “right” to submit any documentation at all.
In other words, whatever is going on with the quiverfull of McIntyre children and their obscenity-spouting uncle, their lives have been turned into a test case for the religious-exemptions movement.
Which makes sense, if you look at who’s running the Home School Legal Defense Association. Its leader is Michael Farris, who is not just a home-school advocate but a longtime conservative activist, the chancellor of Patrick Henry College, an evangelical college (motto: “For Christ and For Liberty”), and head of the “Convention of States,” which is calling for a new constitutional convention to restore home rule and scale back the federal government.
Patrick Henry College, you may recall, was the subject of a damning 2014 article in The New Republic alleging widespread coverups of sexual assault. It is also the subject of the 2006 film God’s Next Army, which described how it draws on home-schooled students, eschews any federal standards, and is only accredited by an organization created by the “Institute for Creation Research.” And it requires all students to sign a statement affirming, among other things, that “Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being who acts as tempter and accuser, for whom Hell, the place of eternal punishment, was prepared, where all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”
So you can see why he took the case. The McIntyre family is just one small blip in a nationwide campaign to create a parallel educational system free from oversight, standards, or, for that matter, science.
It’s also easy to see how this case, and religious exemptions in general, fit into a much broader vision, one shared by Christian Reconstructionism, Dominionism, and the New Apostolic Reformation, of a hopelessly fallen society and the need to build an entirely separate Christian counterculture to it—until such time as the “Christian nation” is restored, or raptured, or both.
This is radical stuff, and it is not fiction. Whether or not the McIntyres exempted their children from education because the rapture is imminent, 77 percent of American evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times. A significant percentage of them believe that the secular government is oppressing Christians and is soon to be destroyed in the coming tribulations. And with evangelicals comprising about 40 percent of the U.S. population, they’re a majority in the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, about 1.7 million children are home-schooled in the United States today, up more than 30 percent in the last decade.
To be sure, not all evangelicals are end-timers, and not all home-schoolers are evangelicals. Mainstream home-school advocates have already distanced themselves from the position that parents should have a blanket religious exemption from providing any education at all. And the Texas Appeals Court decision (PDF) from which the McIntyres are now appealing made clear that the right to home-school is not unlimited, even in Texas.
But these kinds of gray areas are not the final objective of the religious-exemptions movement. Convinced that the secular world is literally going to hell, it seeks to create a separate world entirely, one not bound by the laws that govern you and me. And it is winning victory after victory in pharmacies, corporate boardrooms… and maybe, soon, the back of a motorcycle shop.