Legal Mailbag – 12-4-19

By Attorney Thomas B. Mooney, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut

The “Legal Mailbag Question of the Week” is a regular feature of the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. We invite readers to submit short, law-related questions of practical concern to school administrators. Each week, we will select a question and publish an answer. While these answers cannot be considered formal legal advice, they may be of help to you and your colleagues. We may edit your questions, and we will not identify the authors.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbagatcasciacdotorg.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

A parent just left my office, and my head is spinning. He claims to be super religious, and he expressed concern about the middle school curriculum. He explained that parents, not school officials, are responsible for raising their children, and he complained that some of the required reading conflicts with his religious views. One book he cited, for example, describes a student who gets ensnared in an online relationship. The parent explained that he doesn’t want his son to read about such matters because the parent has forbidden his son from even going online, let alone getting into relationships there.

I told the parent that I respect his views, and I asked him what we can do to make him more comfortable with our curriculum. I never should have asked. He thanked me and gave me a list of books to which he objects. He explained that he simply wants his son to receive an alternative assignment whenever the class is reading any of the books on the list. I expressed concern that it may not be possible to grant this request, but then the tone of the conversation changed. This is not a request, the parent clarified; it is a demand. He then told me that he is fully prepared to sue me and the district if we do not “respect [his] right to raise his son as God commands.”

The teachers in my building are already mad at me for making them sign out when they leave the building at lunch, and I am loath to impose a new responsibility for providing alternative assignments for this young man. But I don’t want to be sued either. Do we really have to provide alternative assignments as the parent demands?

Seeking Guidance

Dear Seeking:

Legal Mailbag can provide you some comfort. Though the parent can sue you and the district no matter what, he will not have a valid claim if you refuse his request here. The courts have ruled that parents cannot force school officials to modify the curriculum simply because it conflicts with the religious views of parents and students. Rather, parents who are concerned about their children being exposed to information with which they disagree have the right to provide for the education of their children through alternative means, such as private school or home instruction.

The leading case in Connecticut on this issue is Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134 (2d Cir. 2003). There, a parent in Fairfield asked that his son be excused from health education. The district responded by granting the requested excusal as provided by law, i.e., from the course segments on family life education and AIDS, but otherwise, it denied the parent’s broader request for excusal from the health curriculum on the basis that the content of the course conflicted with his views as a parent. When the student then received a failing grade for not attending health class, his father sued in federal court, claiming a violation of his First Amendment right of free exercise and of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The Second Circuit, however, rejected these claims, ruling that the school district could require that the student participate in the health curriculum because it was reasonably related to legitimate educational objectives.

The key holding here is that parents do not have the right to require that the curriculum be modified simply because the content of the curriculum conflicts with their religious views. By contrast, school officials have a duty to make reasonable accommodation to religious obligations when the activities in question would cause a student to violate the tenets of his or her religion, such as participating in dancing or in dressing “immodestly” for physical education class. Such situations arise rarely, however, and the more common complaint is that materials in the curriculum are inconsistent with a parent’s religious values. In such cases, school officials may discuss whether and how the parent’s concern can be addressed, but they are not obligated to shield students from the curriculum or provide alternative assignments.

As you consider this matter further, Legal Mailbag reminds you to keep two additional points in mind. First, the statutes on education expressly permit parents to have their children excused from instruction on the following specific topics:

• AIDS instruction
• Family life instruction (sex education)
• Animal dissection
• Gun safety instruction
• Sexual abuse and assault awareness instruction

In such cases, parents may simply request (and school officials must simply grant) excusal from such instruction. Objections to other areas of the curriculum, however, are subject to the rules above.

Finally, as noted above, school administrators can be sued for almost anything, and Legal Mailbag cannot guarantee that this parent will not bring legal action against you, for this or for some other reason. However, you have nothing to worry about, because the indemnification statute (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-235) provides that, if a claim is made against you for actions you take in the scope of your employment, you will be indemnified and held harmless against financial loss, including reasonable attorney’s fees.