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Parents Win Opt-Out Suit in California

ANTIOCH, CA - A superior court judge's ruling allowing Pam and Dennis Angelo to remove their 16-year-old son Mikel from their school district's required "family life" course has set an important precedent for parents opposed to the schools' attempt to mandate non-academic programs.

The Angelos filed the suit in July 1995 against the Antioch Unified School District after it refused the Angelos' request to remove their older son Vinnie from a course called "Decision Making." The class, required for graduation, covers subjects such as sex education, career counseling, values clarification, health, stress management, identification of values, and goal setting. No federal, state or county agency mandates this course, nor was it a requirement recommended by any curriculum task force or voted on by the Board of Education.

Attorneys from the Rutherford Institute, who represented the Angelos, maintained that the state education code clearly allows parents to opt their child out of a values-oriented class. The school was willing to excuse the child from the sex education portion only, insisting that he must attend the rest of the course.

Judge Van De Poel's ruling, aimed at protecting the moral and religious beliefs of the family, allowed the Angelos to opt Mikel out of the entire course. The evidence presented in court showed that the whole class, not just the sex education portion, dealt with moral and religious issues. Judge Van De Poel ruled that parents have the right to excuse their children from any lessons in health, sex education, and family life. The course work and discussion, he said, involved "family life issues and moral judgments which have religious connotations."

Rutherford Institute Regional Director Brad Dacus said that many schools in California use "family life" courses to delve into private family and philosophical issues.

Pam Angelo called the ruling a "great victory for parents." She added, "My hope is the judge's verdict will open the doors for other parents and force other school districts to be willing to work with parents."

The school district expressed fear that this ruling would be a slippery slope allowing parents to challenge any required course or material that they believe teaches the wrong values. Assistant Superintendent Lynn Straight objected to adjusting a curriculum to accommodate parents' beliefs. "How can school districts do that? How much can we tailor? Do we have to water the curriculum in order to pass everybody's seal of approval?" (See Education Reporter, December 1995, page 1)

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