Joseph D. Bryant
HERO or HEEL?! Parental Rights or Political Dogma?
Parental rights or political dogma? Early legislation to enshrine fundamental rights of parents viewed with praise and cynicism
With just weeks before the start of the 2023 state legislative session, a Shelby County state legislator is working to ensure that a self-described rights parental rights bill makes it to the forefront of the agenda when the gavel brings lawmakers to order on March 7. State Rep. Kenneth Paschal, R-Shelby County, called his proposal to enshrine the rights of parents a “commonsense pro-family bill,” but a closer examination reveals a wider and more complex agenda at play, some political observers said. “To further fortify the party’s stance on family values, to be proactive (not reactive), and protect the citizens of Alabama from government overreach regarding parental rights, I pre-filed House Bill (HB6) to codify the fundamental parental rights of parents,” Paschal said. “My bill (HB6) is a commonsense bill that is premised on almost 100 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent that recognized parental rights are a fundamental right, HB6 recognizes that parents are a child’s first, best, and strongest protection, and that the best way to protect children is by empowering parents.”Critics of Paschal’s bill warn if passed, the legislation threatens to politicize education by burdening teachers with weighing the tenets of instruction against larger cultural and divisive partisan debates, which leads to an outside overstep in public education. Citing several cases in support of his bill, Paschal said there is existing precedent of the Alabama Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court that gives parents a fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children. However, the Alabama legislature had never defined what level of protection parents have, he said. The bill is short with just two paragraphs:
1.) The liberty protected by the due process clause includes the fundamental right of fit parents to direct the education, upbringing, care, custody, and control of their children; and
2.) The government may not burden the fundamental right of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, care, and custody of his or her child unless the government demonstrates that the application of the burden is narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest and the government uses the least restrictive means possible to further that interest.
“We do not want situations occurring here like we have seen in other states, with government overreach,” Paschal said. “While the government is entitled to its own views concerning parenting, it is not entitled to replace parents’ fundamental rights with their personal views.”
A nationwide trend:
Paschal’s bill is identical to language suggested by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative national organization of state legislators with a goal of supporting “limited government, free markets and federalism.”
Founded in 1973, ALEC has grown in prominence in Republican controlled states where draft bills often passed by legislatures as submitted verbatim. According to its official website, ALEC’s Alabama chairs are Republicans Rep. Arnold Mooney of Shelby County, and Sen. Dan Roberts of Jefferson County and Shelby County.
Members of Congress are also taking on the issue in Washington around the same time that Paschal seeks to present his bill in Montgomery. Congress, U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) in March plans to introduce a constitutional amendment with the same language as Pascal’s bill. In announcing her legislation on Parentalrights.org, site, Lesko declared that parental rights “are under attack across our nation.” Parentalrights.org is a political action organization directly related to the Parental Rights Foundation with the same chairman. Much of the text of Lesko’s legislation is also verbatim to Paschal’s bill, with both originating from ALEC. Allan Tharpe, chairman of political science at Miles College, said this type of legislation from ALEC has a welcoming home in solidly Republican Alabama and in the South. “Whatever ALEC puts out it generally has an implied goal,” Tharpe said. “It comes with a definite point of view. They are big and they present preparedlegislation to almost every state legislature, and it’s almost always submitted to Republican legislators. It was organized to facilitate the development of law from a conservative perspective.”
Specifically, Tharpe called the bill an example of the GOP’s national agenda to bring parental rights to the forefront, particularly as they relate to the ongoing debate over schools, controversial subjects and what can be discussed. Tharpe said the short and open-ended language of Paschal’s bill is intentional to have broad implications. The short bill opens the door to wider rules in the ongoingculture debate, Tharpe said. Issues surrounding schools, sexuality and what are and are not permissible topics are political hot topics around the county. The issue was a major factor in a victory for the GOP in the 2022 gubernatorial rare in Virginia. The debate over education and parental rights is also setting up to become a major issue for the 2024 presidential primary. “This is very similar to laws passed in Florida and other places where Republicans are dominant, and it seems as a backdoor way to discourage conversation about gender or sexuality,” Tharpe said. “These bills that have been passed require teachers to relate to parents anything their child may say about sexuality can interfere with the trust that that may be there between children and teachers. If the teacher has to report everything, then there are not many children who are going to confide in teachers,” he added.
A “Preemptive” Measure:
While Paschal describes his bill as having a preemptive approach in the way it protects parents’ roles already granted in current and landmark legislation, critics say the protections are already afforded in the law, and Paschal’s bill is unnecessary. “I know they say their aim is to protect the parent’s right and parents have the right. To me at any rate, it’s a cover to regulate what teachers can say and do.” Tharpe said. Tharpe added that is his observation that these controversial conversations are rare and that teachers are too hard pressed to teach basic lessons than to have time dissecting complex social issues around sexuality. “They tend to blame us educators as trying to harm their children,” he said. “Most first second and third grade teachers are trying to teach students how to add and how to write. They don’t have time in the day to talk about gender or gay rights.” In defense, Paschal stressed that his bill would not disrupt school functions. Additionally, he noted that in the states with similar legislation, governing the education of children at home, compulsory attendance laws, and other “common-sense laws governing the parent-child relationship” remain in place as they did before the parental rights legislation was approved. Paschal said the bill is pre-emptive and will not change any laws in Alabama but rather puts strong protections in place “for the family values of Alabama parents” and solidifies the rights of parents against any changes in Supreme Court opinions. Further supporting his legislation as non-intrusive, Paschal presented a statement from State Superintendent Eric Mackey endorsing his policy. “The importance of building rapport, respect, and trust between parents, community members, school boards, and school leadership is paramount in delivering an effective education to all students,” Eric Mackey said in a statementpresented by Paschal. “We appreciate Representative Paschal’s commitment that this bill will not interfere with any parent’s responsibility to comply with current Alabama law, while making it clear that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers.”