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By MELISSA NIX
VIRGINIA LAW gives any school-age child a unique right: the right not to attend school.
If parents attest that it is against their faith to send their children to school, they can remove them without penalty or oversight. These children are religiously exempt from the state's compulsory attendance law. And unlike with home-schooled children, the state no longer monitors religiously exempt children's academic progress.
Some think the law is working just fine. Others say elected and school officials have abdicated their responsibility to children.
Children--and their education--are caught in the middle.
"To be honest, [school boards] should be reluctant to deny exemption, unless there is something that doesn't fit," said John Whitehead, president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil rights legal organization based in Charlottesville. "It would be crazy if anyone could walk up and say, 'I had a dream last night and Pat Robertson told me I had to remove my children from public school.'"
Whitehead maintains the law gives school boards leeway to deny requests that don't make sense.
"They may get into a lawsuit about it, but if they act prudently and reasonably they can deny it," he said.
But recent trends show that school boards are reticent to challenge requests for religious exemption. Critics say they rubber-stamp them. School officials say they are simply following a vaguely worded law to the best of their abilities.
Keith Rowland, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on home schooling and serves as director of elementary education for Radford schools, does not share Whitehead's comfort level.
"It's a no-win situation for them. If they do [challenge a request], they run the risk of a family taking it to the paper and blasting them," he said.
"School divisions will run from this until someone steps up to the plate and says the law needs to be revisited."
Part of Marceline Rollins Catlett's job used to be approving home-instruction and religious-exemption applications. The assistant superintendent for instruction and personnel at Fredericksburg schools would not discuss any specific case, but spoke in general about process.
"It's really hard for a school division to say [to a family] it's not a bona fide religious belief," Catlett said.