The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in a case of a Christian girl who was ordered out of homeschooling and into a public school by a state judge.
Amanda Kurowski, now 11, was ordered by a trial court in July 2009 to attend a public school. Her mother, Brenda A. Kurowski (Voydatch), is appealing the decision.
John A. Simmons, the attorney representing Voydatch, argued before the five-judge panel that the court did not follow the modification standard it should have in the parenting plan that existed between Voydatch and her ex-husband, Martin Kurowski.
Simmons said the father did not meet the requirements of a New Hampshire statute that requires there to be a defining of harm to the child in order for modification of the status quo, which in this case was the homeschooling of their daughter.
He said that in 2002 the couple followed a lower court order that required them to counsel with each other and decide on their daughter’s education. The couple divorced in 1999.
"The parties followed the [court] order and made a decision," Simmons told the court. "Once you make a decision, the fact that you later say, 'Well I want to do something different now,' doesn't change the fact that you already made a decision."
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While the father alleges that Voydatch failed to consult him about homeschooling their daughter, Voydatch maintains that they have often consulted about Amanda’s educational plans.
Justice Robert J. Lynn asked whether treating the case as a modification would discourage parties in similar situations from entering into an agreement and instead, waiting until their child is older.
"You're going to have to make the assessment whether you truly believe [one parent] can make decisions on the fly with the other parent and if [the parent] can't, [the parent is] going to have to ask for a specific order," responded Simmons. "The statute says let's get some stability to this child and leave this child in the position where she's been all along."
In the trial court, Kurowski had expressed concerns that the schooling his daughter was receiving at home was isolating and did not expose her to different viewpoints and group working environments.
Simmons tackled the issue from the "best interest" viewpoint, saying that the lower court could have increased Amanda's time with her father or in external activities without taking her out of homeschool. The court could have also left her in the present "hybrid" schooling situation that involved both learning time at home and at the public school.
What the court shouldn't have done, he argued, was cite the child's views as being too religiously narrow in its ruling.
In 2009, Judge Lucinda V. Sadler approved recommendations made by the Guardian ad Litem – who acts as a fact finder for the court – to expose Amanda to different points of view (other than the Christian viewpoint that she and her mother hold) and to have her attend a public school beginning in the 2009-2010 academic year. The GAL reported that Amanda was found to "lack some youthful characteristics," partly because "she appeared to reflect her mother's rigidity on questions of faith."
At the same time, the report acknowledged that Amanda is excelling academically and is generally interactive with her peers.
Simmons told The Christian Post that other than the religious issue, there was no other way to fault homeschooling since court documents showed that Amanda’s academic performance was at or superior to grade level. The Meredith public school system had vouched that she had possessed the necessary critical thinking skills by advancing her the next grade level, he added.
"The court punished a mother and child for their religious beliefs and ordered the child out of homeschool and into public school in order to have her views challenged and expanded," Simmons said after the session.
During the hearing, justices questioned whether there was a constitutional right to homeschool. Simmons responded yes, and later clarified that there was a constitutional right to choose how to educate a child.
"Parents have a fundamental right to direct the education of their children," Simmons told The Christian Post. "My client had her right taken from her because she was too religious."
Joshua L. Gordon, who argued on behalf of the father, framed the case as simply a dispute between two parents.
"This case is not about religion or even about education. It's merely about parents who differ about child-rearing philosophies," he said before the court.
Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis questioned whether the modification statute would eliminate the venue for dispute.
Gordon contended that the case was not a modification issue since there was never an order on the child's schooling in the original parenting plan, only a practice that had been in place.
Asked whether the lower court ruling took into account religion, Gordon said he thinks it didn't.
"It's not a religion case," he said. "The court was very specific in saying this order does not preclude either of the parent from teaching the child any religion or religious practices."
Gordon argued that it wasn't in the child's best interest to be homeschooled, saying the father believes that the child needs to be more "fully exposed, working with peers in different interests and abilities, understanding and coping with diversity, finding out to be individually successful in comparison with others, and dealing with non-family authority."
He admitted to the justices that the father was open to a second possibility of homeschooling coupled with increased time between Amanda and her father, which would give him "more opportunity to broaden her horizons." However, he said that option was not available to the court since that would change the order of the visitation schedule, thereby modifying the parenting plan.
Justice James E. Duggan called it an "odd result," to which Gordon agreed.
According to Simmons, the issue not just limited to homeschooling.
At stake is whether a parent gets to decide the method of schooling free from interference from a court about an inquiry into one's religious beliefs, he told The Christian Post.
"If you hold those religious beliefs too firmly or if [the court] believes those beliefs are too rigid then [it] will make that decision for you. That's the problem here," said Simmons.
The court is expected to issue a decision within a few months.