Pauline's Guide to Homeschooling in PA

Religious Exemptions & The Religious Freedom Protection Act

Overview of Religious Exemptions in PA:

Pennsylvania does not have a formal religious exemption option specifically designed for homeschoolers. However, it is my understanding that, over the years, a handful of homeschoolers have made individual, informal, sometimes unspoken agreements with their school districts in this regard. (Religious exemptions are routinely available for the medical requirements – see Immunizations & Medical Requirements.)

In the 2003-2004 school year, some folks in PA began considering whether the then-recently-enacted Religious Freedom Protection Act (RFPA) can apply in some way, for some people, to some or all of the requirements of the PA home education law (or even to the compulsory attendance law). See Understanding the RFPA (below) for a brief summary and more info.

The RFPA is a new law, and it remains to be seen whether it will become a viable option for homeschoolers in PA.

Some families have decided to attempt to use the RFPA for the 2003-2004 school year. Depending on individual circumstances, it could take quite some time to see how these “test cases” are resolved. Two important cases involve the Newborn family, who had been following PA’s home education law, and the Hankin family, who had been homeschooling underground. The text of the Newborn family’s case is here. See my RFPA News page for some links to articles about these cases.

Hopefully, as the current RFPA claims evolve, we’ll get enough of a sense of how things are going in time for the “next wave” of interested families to make informed decisions. It will be interesting to see whether the RFPA becomes a viable option for homeschoolers in PA. I can imagine situations where it could clearly apply, such as the case of a parent who feels a religious call to homeschooling but who does not have the required high school diploma. (In such a case, the school district might waive the diploma requirement but not the rest of the requirements.) Whether it has more general applicability, and especially whether it can be routinely used to waive all of the home education law’s requirements, remains to be seen.

Again – this is a new law, and it remains to be seen whether it will prove useful to homeschoolers.

Understanding the Religious Freedom Act

The law is quite complex, and I am not a lawyer. Here is my simplified understanding of the law’s requirements, but please do not rely on my description. Read the RFPA law yourself too! You should consult with a lawyer if you are interested in using this law. See also my RFPA News page for news of the pending RFPA cases.  

Basically, to use the RFPA, you would have to give the district written notice, by certified mail, return receipt requested,

  • (1) telling them that your free exercise of religion has been or is about to be substantially burdened by an exercise of the agency's governmental authority,
  • (2) describing the act or refusal to act which has burdened or will burden your free exercise of religion, (that is, specifically what it is that you object to the district doing/requiring – what rule is conflicting with your free exercise of religion), AND
  • (3) describing how the exercise of the governmental authority burdens your free exercise of religion (that is, how the particular rule gets in the way of your free exercise of religion).
  • You have to send this letter 30 days in advance (see the law for details and exceptions).

Keep in mind that whatever you object to doing (whether it's reporting to the district in general, or a specific part of reporting, such as keeping a log or turning in samples or whatever), has to do one of the following in order to qualify:

  • (1) Significantly constrain or inhibit conduct or expression mandated by your religious beliefs,
  • (2) Significantly curtail your ability to express adherence to your religious faith,
  • (3) Deny you a reasonable opportunity to engage in activities which are fundamental to your religion,
  • (4) Compel conduct or expression which violates a specific tenet of your religious faith. The school district can argue that the requirements are "In furtherance of a compelling interest of the agency," (such as making sure your kids have at least a basic education), but they then have to use "the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling interest."

I have been told that this law can also be used as a defense (for example in a truancy case), without prior notice having been given. In this case, a family would simply ignore the school district, and not file an affidavit or an RFPA notice. It would only become an issue if the family came to the school district’s attention. Obviously, there would be pros and cons to this approach, and it would be wise to seek legal advice before going this route. (See also Underground Homeschooling)

In either case, if you think the RFPA would apply to your family, you will need to do your homework. I would not try to use this law without 1) reading the entire law for yourself, 2) carefully clarifying how the homeschooling law or the compulsory attendance law conflicts with your religious beliefs, as per the requirements of the RFPA, and 3) consulting extensively with a lawyer, most likely HSLDA. I am usually a do-it-yourself person, but in this case I would have a lawyer write the notification letter for you. It is a formal statement of what you're claiming, and it will have to be worded carefully to meet the requirements of the law.

Here is some information from HSLDA about the law.

Again – this is a new law, and it remains to be seen whether it will prove useful to homeschoolers.