Unfolding Thursday in Concord, N.H., was yet another chapter in the sad story of a family involved in a high-conflict divorce. It is the frustrating example of two parents fighting one another for control of their child's education. And it is a compelling lesson about home schooling and public education, religion and the role of the courts, in determining a child's course of learning.
The story of Martin Kurowski, his ex-wife, Brenda Voydatch, and their daughter, Amanda, is regrettably a common one. Yet the conflict between the parents over the future of their child has made it all the way to the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, where oral argument in the case was heard Thursday. And, thanks to a conservative advocacy group that specializes in freedom-of-religion cases, it has made it onto the national stage
as well, perfectly timed to coincide with the latest skirmishes over the role of religion in American public life. The intersection of religion with public eduction always draws a crowd and great fervor. But this case is much more about divorce and parenting than it is about religion -- and New Hampshire's highest court will likely agree.
You can read some of the details here
. Mother and father are long divorced, share custody of their daughter, and now cannot agree on how Amanda, 11, should be schooled. When Amanda started first grade, both parents agreed to have her home-schooled by Brenda, who reportedly used material from Bob Jones University, the conservative Christian college and seminary, to help teach the child. By all accounts things went well for several years. But in 2008, when Amanda was 9, both parents agreed to disagree about further home-schooling -- to leave that question up to a court -- and agreed to give Martin more parenting time with his daughter. Amanda, meanwhile, with both parents' consent, began to venture beyond the home to attend some classes at the local public school, where she reportedly did well.
A few months later, however, things evidently took a turn for the worse. The parties asked the court to resolve their dispute over Amanda's academic future. Also, Brenda claimed that "Amanda's emotional and mental health" were being harmed by her increased interaction with her father. That serious allegation generated an investigation into the matter by the guardian ad litem
appointed in the case. The guardian immediately asked a counselor to talk with Amanda. And then the guardian herself initiated an investigation into the matter. What she found was a devoutly religious mother and a daughter who evidently believes that her father's "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," which is the way court records reflect how Amanda described the situation to her counselor.
The guardian concluded, and the court ultimately agreed, that Amanda was not at risk from additional exposure to her father. Moreover, and more relevant to our story, a state judge, Lucinda V. Sadler, adopted the extensive findings of fact offered up by a special court master, Michael Garner. He wrote:
The Court is extremely reluctant to impose on parents a decision about a child's education, which commonly emerges after sincere and thorough discussion between parents who are both committed to the child's growth and development. In the absence of effective communication between the parents whose case reflects a history of opposing opinions on a variety of issues, the Court is guided by the premise that education is by its nature an exploration and examination of new things, and by the premise that a child requires academic, social, cultural and physical interaction with a variety of experiences, people, concepts and surroundings in order to grow to an adult who can make intelligent decisions about how to achieve a productive and satisfying life. . . . [T]he court concludes that it would be in Amanda's best interests to attend public school.
Through her lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund, Brenda objected
. She asked Sadler to reconsider. The judge had applied the wrong legal standard, the ADF attorneys argued, and the guardian was biased against Brenda and Amanda because of their deeply held religious beliefs. "It is a fundamental right of a parent to raise their child according the holdings of the parent's religion and beliefs," the reconsideration motion stated. "To be compelled otherwise by Court orders puts the Courts (the 'State') in the business of determining children's religious upbringing. This is unconstitutional. . . . Mother and Amanda should not have to choose between their faith and their schooling choices. The Court has no business interfering with either."
Just like that -- poof! -- a pedestrian case about a divorce parenting plan became one woman's constitutional struggle for freedom of religion. However, Sadler (and Special Master Garner) disagreed. In a new ruling
, the court defended the integrity of the guardian and the accuracy of its own application of New Hampshire family law. Again, Brenda objected, filing this brief
with the state Supreme Court. The gravamen (or essence) of the case, from the mother's point of view, is that one parent's right to home-school a child should trump another parent's right to public school if the first parent has a religious underpinning to her beliefs. It's a breathtaking concept -- with precisely the sort of ideological jam that national advocacy groups love to push.
What about Martin, the father? The state Supreme Court brief
prepared by his lawyer defends both the work of the public officials who interacted with Amanda and Martin's right to play a role in his daughter's education. He wrote. "Mr. Kurowski and Ms. Voydatch are parents who disagree whether their daughter should be home-schooled or public-schooled. An evidentiary hearing highlighted their religious differences, Ms. Voydatch's questionable ability to know and accurately report the child's preferences, and the small range of alternative choices. The court found, and the record easily supports, that the child's best interest is in the public school."
And then Martin's attorney addressed the religious component of the case. "Mr. Kurowski dispels the claim that religious and parental rights create a right to homeschooling. No such right exists because it would ignore the rights and interests of the other parent, the child, and the community, and because the United States Supreme Court opinion relied on to make the claim of right was limited by its own terms to traditional established agrarian communities. Even if such a right existed, at most it is something that can be narrowly asserted against the government, not between parents. But this case is governed by the best interest of the child, which has nothing to do with either parent's rights."
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the dichotomy in the case is through the press release
issued by the ADF in advance of oral arguments. Approximately 449 words long, it contained not a single mention of Martin Kurowski, or the fact that the dispute arises out of a divorce, or the fact that the state court judge already has told the parents that if they agreed upon home schooling for Amanda there would be no legal dispute to ponder. The ADF's view instead pitched the story of this wracked family as the story of an overbearing "state judge" forcing a poor girl into a "government school" over the objections of her heroic mother in the apparent absence of a concerned father. This might be Brenda's truth. It might even be some truth. But as the judges and experts so far have concluded it's nowhere close to the "whole truth."
On Thursday, the justices held court
. "This is not state versus parent," Justice Robert Lynn said to the lawyers. "The state was forced into this because it's a dispute between the parents that someone had to resolve." If a few of his colleagues see the case the same way, Amanda will almost certainly continue in public school, which is where she is studying this year. She did not attend Thursday's hearing -- but both of her parents, and their lawyers, did.