This news story has been raising some eyebrows lately: it appears that a North Carolina judge has ordered three children of a divorcing couple to be sent to public school in part because of the father’s concern that the children are being taught creationism at home. Prof. Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert, has some comments here. Personally, I’m very skeptical about the news report. Legal reporting is often extremely misleading, and it’s always best to be skeptical. In this case, the story only quotes the mother (who, of course, lost the case and is the one complaining) and not the judge. The mother claims that the judge based his ruling in part on this issue, but we don’t have the judge’s own words before us.
Putting that aside, this is not an easy question to call. Of course, the prospect of a judge basing a custody decision solely on this issue is very troubling–there are far more relevant factors in a custody case than whether a child is receiving adequate science instruction. And a parent has a right to direct the religious upbringing of a child, including the right to teach a child ludicrous religious dogma instead of science. That’s a sad thing, but people often think other people’s exercise of freedom is a waste. Certainly history includes many atrocious cases in which atheist parents have lost their children because judges thought it was “better for the child” to be taught religion.
Still, the father also has a right to educate his children, and if he thinks the children are not being instructed adequately, he has a legitimate complaint. There are good reasons to be concerned about the quality of education in home schooling environments (although there are certainly many very high quality home schoolers). In a case like this, it is probably best to ensure that although the mother is free to teach her children her religious beliefs, the father is also free to teach real science to kids if he chooses. But, again, we don’t know all the facts, or even the other side of the story.
I think everyone can at least agree that child custody cases are extremely complicated matters–which cannot be accurately described in a brief news story, and obviously should not be decided on the basis of evolution or creationism education alone–and that except in cases of actual abuse, minor children should not be taken from parents because of the religious instruction that parents are giving their kids. The problem is, when does religious instruction become abuse? That line can often be blurry–but if it’s just a dispute over evolution and creationism, it’s clearly not abuse.