A Right to Faith?

Céleste Perrino-Walker September/October 2010

In the "Live Free or Die" state they don't do things by halves, except when neither half agrees with the other. In a current case involving Amanda Kurowski, the 10-year-old Christian daughter of divorced parents who has been forced by a judge to stop homeschooling and attend public school, some say parental rights are the issue and others that religious freedom is at stake. Careful examination of the case reveals that while it's certainly not cut and dry, there are very crucial issues involved.

Traditionally New Hampshire has been very much in favor of and supportive of home schooling, and who could expect less from this independent state bristling with Yankee ingenuity and self-sufficiency. "The general court recognizes . . . that it is the primary right and obligation of a parent to choose the appropriate educational alternative for a child under his care and supervision, as provided by law"1 (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 193-A).

While New Hampshire might be all in favor of homeschool, Amanda's father, Martin Kurowski, wasn't and had been at odds with her mother, Brenda Voydatch, over the subject for years. Amanda lives with her mother, her custodial parent, in Meredith, New Hampshire, and Voydatch had been homeschooling her since first grade, a point of contention between them. Kurowski contended that his daughter wasn't getting enough socialization. He'd gone so far in the past as to petition the court hoping they'd send his daughter to public school, but the request was denied.

In an attempt to address Kurowski's concerns regarding socialization, Voydatch enrolled Amanda in a slew of extracurricular programs and activities. Besides her regular course load, which met the requirements of the local Inter-Lakes School District and included math, reading, English, social studies, science, handwriting, spelling, and Spanish, she also took piano lessons and participated in theater club to further comply with the local district's requirements. The Spanish, art, and physical education classes were taken at the public school. Outside of school she was involved in gymnastics, horseback riding, softball, and basketball. Not exactly what you'd call a social hermit.

Biased GAL—How It All Began

The situation was not ideal admittedly; the father was not happy about the school arrangements, but the mother was making concessions to address his concerns. Sounds like a compromise. In fact, if it weren't for a biased guardian ad litem appointed to protect Amanda's legal interests, she might still be peacefully homeschooling and maintaining her impressive extracurricular commitments. However, during a renegotiation of the parenting plan, the GAL, Janice McLaughlin, reported that Amanda "appeared to reflect her mother's rigidity on questions of faith," concluding that "Amanda's interests, and particularly her intellectual and emotional development, would be best served by exposure to a public school setting in which she would be challenged to solve problems presented by a group learning situation and by the social interactivity of children her age. She also concluded that Amanda would be best served by exposure to different points of view at a time in her life when she must begin to critically evaluate multiple systems of belief and behavior and cooperation in order to select, as a young adult, which of those systems will best suit her own needs."2

The court, agreeing with her, in essence ruled that Christianity is too narrow-minded a belief system and children should be exposed to "different points of view" during their formative years and legally made it so for Amanda. But, who is the court to say whether or not a child's beliefs are too "rigid" to be allowed to homeschool? And how did religion become a determining factor in whether a child is allowed to homeschool?

"Parents have a fundamental right to make educational choices for their children. In this case specifically, the court is illegitimately altering a method of education that the court itself admits is working," said John Anthony Simmons, who is representing Voydatch. "The court is essentially saying that the evidence shows that, socially and academically, this girl is doing great, but her religious beliefs are a bit too sincerely held and must be stifled, tested by, and mixed among other worldviews. This is a step too far for any court to take."3

The truly preposterous element of the GAL's conclusion is that any 10-year-old child needs to be exposed—worse, forcibly exposed—to viewpoints other than those held by the child's own family. Exposure to varied belief systems or faiths is done by parents—and certainly not by the state—within the context of their own beliefs and not by throwing them into public school to temper the religion out of them. Her father is as free as her mother is to share his beliefs with her, if he has any.

Additionally, the GAL refused to look over home-schooling materials given to her by Voydatch because they were Christian-based, requested personal references and then refused to interview them if they were Christians, and reportedly told Voydatch that if she (the GAL) wanted Amanda in public school then she would be in public school.4

In the GAL's opinion, offered in her testimony, Amanda's relationship with her father was suffering, to some degree, from her religious beliefs, particularly Amanda's belief that "his refusal to adopt her religious beliefs and his choice instead to spend eternity away from her proves that he does not love her as much as he says he does."5

Kurowski testified that during his visits with Amanda "they rarely discuss religion, although they have, several times in the past. He believes that exposure to other points of view will decrease Amanda's rigid adherence to her mother's religious beliefs, and increase her ability to get along with others and to function in a world which requires some element of independent thinking and tolerance for different points of view."6 That does not sound like he's objecting to her purported lack of socialization, but to the fact that she has the same religious beliefs as her mother.

Consider the fact that after asking the courts to hold Amanda's mother in contempt for allegedly failing to consult him about home schooling, "Kurowski testified the following year that the strongly held Christian beliefs Amanda had been taught by her mother prevented the girl from enjoying her relationship with him."7

Simmons points out that "Mother's exposure of the child to Christianity is consistent with Father's past actions. The Father has changed his mind about religion and now seeks to interfere with his daughter's beliefs. The Court's assistance in accomplishing this does nothing more than favor one parent's religious views with those of the other."8

Enter Marital Master

"In many courts throughout the state [of New Hampshire], divorce and custody actions are heard by marital masters. A marital master is not a judicial officer within the meaning of the New Hampshire Constitution because they are neither nominated nor appointed by the Governor and Council. . . . When a marital master hears a case, he or she will make a recommendation to the court as to how the case should be decided. The recommendation is not binding upon the court and has no effect unless it is countersigned by a judge."9

Duly, on July 13, 2009, Michael Garner, marital master, signed a Decree on Pending Motions that was countersigned the next day by Judge Lucinda V. Sadler. In the decree, Garner observed: "The parties do not debate the relative academic merits of home-schooling and public school: it is clear that the home schooling Ms. Voydatch has provided has more than kept up with the academic requirements of the Meredith public school system."10 And that is where he should have stopped. Case closed. But, he went on: "Instead, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will provide Amanda with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, and social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view."11 Cutting through the doublespeak, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will soften Amanda's rigid religious beliefs (beliefs apparently shared by her mother, who was previously also her teacher) to satisfy her father, who seems worried because his relationship with his daughter has begun to suffer because of their differences of beliefs. The outcome accomplishes nothing more than leveling the "religious" playing field between the parents.

But this is not a matter for the court to become involved in. Particularly under the guise of settling a home-school/public school dispute. This is precisely the reason that no one can agree whether this is a parental rights case or a freedom of religion case. It's because Kurowski, claiming concern about Amanda's educational socialization and assisted by a GAL biased against religion, was able to accomplish something he had failed to do previously; his daughter is now attending public school.

Admittedly, Kurowski is not in an enviable position. He is not the custodial parent and unlike a "deadbeat dad" seems to take a genuine interest in his daughter's welfare and be concerned for her best interests. As his daughter gets older it's only natural that there will be some tension as she forges her own identity and, because of the fact that her parents disagree on religious matters, will likely agree eventually more with one parent than the other in that area. But these are matters that are faced in every family unit where there is disagreement about religion and are no cause for a judge to force a child into public school as a remedy.
If Amanda's case was truly about parental rights, the court documents would have cited things such as "Unsociable kid," "Needs more diversity in education," or even "Failing all subjects; needs special educational help," indicating that clearly homeschool was not working and her father's concern about her education and socialization was valid to the court and worthy of taking action to correct. But the court documents cited nothing of the kind. They cited objections about Amanda's religious beliefs and convictions, and basically the fact that she had any, and those firmly held, as if that was a particular crime.

Mike Donnelly, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Virginia, called the judge's ruling "unreasonable and inappropriate." He said, "The fact that the court talks about the religion of the child and says it thinks the child ought to be in public school because she needs to be socialized shows they have overstepped their authority, which is troubling. The court cannot just on its own pull opinions out of thin air."12

Simmons, whose request for the court to rescind its order was denied on August 31, the day before Amanda was scheduled to start school, reports that the case is being appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. "Obviously we're disappointed that the court did not take this opportunity to reconsider its order; however, we are confident that as the process goes forward the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to recognize my client and her daughter's constitutional and other rights."13

Celeste Perrino-Walker is a freelance journalist writing from Rutland, Vermont.

1 www.homeschoolfacts.com/states/sub_sections.php/State_Laws/new-hampshire
2 Decree on Pending Motion, No. 2006-M669, July 14, 2009.
3 NH Court Orders Home-schooled Child Into Government-Run School, www.alliancedefensefund.org/news/story.aspx?cid=5050.
4 Motion for Reconsideration and Motion to Stay, John Anthony Simmons, Sr., Esq., August 24, 2009.
5 Decree on Pending Motion, No. 2006-M669, July 14, 2009.
6 Ibid.
7 "Court's Home Schooling Order Raises Hackles," Karen Langley, Concord Monitor, September 27, 2009.
8 Motion for Reconsideration and Motion to Stay, John Anthony Simmons, Sr., Esq., August 24, 2009.
9 "Court Clarifies Authority of Marital Masters," Andrew J. Piela, June 7, 2007, www.nashualaw.com/practice_areas/MaritalMasters.htm
10 Decree on Pending Motion, No. 2006-M669, July 14, 2009.
11 Ibid.
12 "Judge Says She Knows What's Best for Homeschooled Christians," James P. Tucker, Jr., September 2009,
13 Personal interview, John Anthony Simmons, October 26, 2009.

Article Author: Céleste Perrino-Walker