Ignore the Rod: the Parental Rights Amendment Isn’t About Spanking

Several weeks ago, a Politico story gave a glimpse into the long-shot movement to create a new “parental rights” amendment to the Constitution, citing the debate as “the new wedge issue” that will reignite the culture wars (or perhaps more accurately, reinvigorate media coverage of the ongoing, un-extinguished culture wars).

The proposed amendment, led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), has garnered 81 supporters in the House to date (80 Republicans plus North Carolina Democrat Mike McIntyre) since it was introduced on March 31. Among them are right-wing stalwarts Joe Pitts, Michele Bachmann, and Nebraska’s Lee Terry, who has worked with the conservative “pro-family” movement before, in drafting pro-natalist tax legislation with the World Congress of Families’ Allan Carlson.

The representatives were rallied against the threat of the United States finally ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Though the treaty is nearly two decades old, it reappeared on political radar when Sen. Barbara Boxer brought it up during Ambassador Susan Rice’s confirmation hearings, and earlier, when President Obama remarked during his campaign that he thought it was “embarrassing” that the U.S. stood alone with Somalia in failing to ratify the treaty, and pledged to revisit the issue.

Hoekstra has created a Web site, parentsrights.us, to organize support and house his numerous recent media appearances for the bill, which states “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right” no treaty or international law can supersede. Since its introduction, the bill has been covered heavily by Fox News—from Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, and other conservative anchors—all fanning outrage over the idea that parents will be forbidden to discipline their children or drag them to church. However much church attendance and spanking may have been the focus of recent coverage (from both supporters and opponents of the proposed amendment), neither is the most potent issue in this fight.

Supporters, led by Michael Farris (founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association—HSLDA—and a lead author of the bill), have created their own Web site, parentalrights.org, where they list their largely conservative Christian allies: the American Family Association, the American Family Rights Association (an anti-Child Protective Services outfit), the anti-abortion Children of God for Life, the anti-contraception Christian Medical and Dental Association, Concerned Women of America, Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family Action, Gun Owners of America, Renew America, and many others. It’s a strikingly similar list as the one composing the backers of a 1993 Parental Rights Amendment, following the Christian Coalition’s adoption of parents’ rights as a key issue. Then as now, Michael Farris helped draft the legislation.

The Detroit Free Press reported on April 30 that for much of the treaty’s 20-year history, opponents have claimed that it would ban parents from: spanking their children, directing their children’s church attendance and religious education, or stopping their daughters from having abortions. These claims have echoed across conservative media for years, despite the promises of supporters like Meg Gardinier, director of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that no country that has signed the treaty has witnessed an encroachment on parental rights.

David M. Smolin, a law professor who notes he is equally invested in children’s welfare movements and his religious community, argued for a path to reconciliation in a 2006 article in the Emory International Law Review, “Overcoming Religious Objections to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

He notes sympathetically that certain sections of the treaty do seem to “reduce the parental role to that of giving advice,” and that in the “the context of the ‘culture wars’ regarding ‘family values’ in the United States, emancipating children from parental authority seems like yet another attempt to undermine the family.” He writes:

To a large degree, many religious conservatives distrust elite cultural institutions within the United States and prefer to cast their lot with democratically accountable institutions. These forms of religious populism reflect a deep strand of anti-elitism within American culture that is loath to cede authority to geographically or culturally distant authorities, particularly in culturally sensitive areas such as the family, children, education, and religion. Thus, the conservative religious community within the United States is not prepared to cede ultimate interpretive authority and jurisdiction over children’s issues to an international committee of experts, regardless of the strength of their qualifications…

The concept that the CRC could proscribe all forms of corporal punishment in all homes and schools in the United States suggests a kind of authoritarian reach that is frankly frightening to many. Religious conservatives are not alone in pointing to a right to family autonomy that protects against unwarranted state intrusion. While there is general agreement that this zone of autonomy is not absolute and that the State has the duty and right to protect children from harm within the family, the question remains: Who defines what is considered sufficiently harmful to children to invade this zone of parental and family autonomy? This question goes far beyond the spanking issue. To the degree that the CRC is ready to address a broad range of issues impacting parent-child relationships, it threatens to authorize a broad range of intrusions into the family… Some fear that the CRC could radically tilt this balance in the direction of an authoritarian State.

As a compromise, Smolin suggests a US “understanding” clause spelling out that children’s rights revolve more around protection and care than autonomy and decision-making, a “reservation” on education language compelling the teaching of tolerance, as well as echoing supporters’ assurances that the treaty has no powers of enforcement cemented in a ratification declaration—that “the substantive provisions of the CRC are not self-executing,” but reliant on executive and legislative implementation.

With or without these compromises, supporters see Obama’s presidency as an opportune moment for the old treaty. Gardinier, whose organization will host its 2009 symposium on the subject of how the treaty could impact US children, says she hopes the Senate will ratify it by the third year of Obama’s administration. Rep. Hoekstra says that his bill is a response to those hopes—part of a preemptive defense strategy in place in case the treaty makes progress, and readying the culture war rank and file to re-embrace an old fight.

To that end, they’re spreading the word about what the treaty will do to parents’ rights, starting with a ten-point list that originated with Farris’ group outlining the various ill-effects the treaty could have: no more reasonable spankings, children choosing their own religion, government workers overriding parental decisions in the “best interest of the child,” children seeking governmental review of their folks’ rules, lazy children shirking chores in accordance with their “right to leisure,” and children accessing sex education, contraception, and abortion in school, but forbidden from learning about Christianity.

As Hoekstra told Politico, progress on the amendment will be slow if the Senate doesn’t move to ratify the treaty, or “If there’s no major court cases or anything that highlight this [issue].” However, the real reason that parental rights might become a third-rail issue is not so much the aspect of corporal punishment—though conservative Christian spanking debates certainly have a long history both in the United States and other countries—but rather its association with homeschooling, and the networks among homeschoolers trained to respond at trigger speed to possible threats.

Leadership of Farris’ parentalrights.org group largely comes from the ranks of HSLDA, including Secretary James Mason, an HSLDA attorney, Treasurer Steve Oberlander, the HSLDA CFO, and current HSLDA president J. Michael Smith, serving on the group’s board. Rev. Michael T. Ramey, an out-of-work Southern Baptist pastor (who blames “the degrading condition of the American Church” for the inability of a “solidly biblical, conservative (and especially reformed) [pastor] to find a church to serve”) is Director of Communications and Research. And the Board includes homeschooling defender Grover Norquist, homeschooling doctor Lainna Callentine, and an Alliance Defense Fund attorney, among others.

Homeschoolers are traditionally a stringently independent group, wary that their choice wasn’t always legal and on the lookout for new threats. For however paranoid this may render some followers (some of whom held their noses to defend polygamist followers of Warren Jeffs last year, out of fear that the state might well come for their children next), there have been substantial threats in the past year alone. Homeschooling listservs were buzzing about the treaty before Hoekstra’s bill was proposed, fueled by longstanding concerns about the lack of Constitutional guarantees for homeschooling, as well as recent court cases including a North Carolina mother whose three homeschooled children were ordered to attend public school by a judge handling her divorce (in fact, the case hinged more on the parents’ disagreement over their children’s education than on judicial interference, but such subtleties were lost in the response), and a California order in February 2008 holding that homeschooling parents had to hold teaching credentials in order to educate their children (the ruling was quickly reversed).

Before his party defection last week, Sen. Arlen Specter was being lobbied in early April to support a Senate version of the Parental Rights Amendment—sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC)—by Pennsylvania homeschooling groups offering voter support in exchange for his more moderate image on the bill. Parentalrights.org Board Member Grover Norquist told the Washington Independent that the amendment could be a particularly popular effort by “the traditional values people” (who Norquist acknowledged are often “seen as trying to impose their values on other people”) to broaden homeschoolers’ singular fear of a “government-knows-best-agenda” into a wider resentment of perceived government paternalism that could affect non-homeschooling parents’ authority as well.

As Hoekstra and Farris said in a joint statement on April 21, praising the “grassroots support” the bill had amassed in the first weeks of its introduction, “The need to protect parents’ rights has struck a nerve with the American people. In an era where congressional leadership and the administration offer the federal government as the only solution to the challenges we face, Americans are starting to realize that no sphere of their lives is off-limits from government encroachment. Specifically, parents are recognizing the real possibility of being told by the government how to manage their parent-child relationship.”

The desire to forward the bill as something with a more universal appeal is likely why little mention has been made of homeschooling as an issue, though the board of the parentalrights.org Web site shows it to be overwhelmingly affiliated with the homeschooling movement. Indeed, of the HSLDA-dominated parentalrights.org “top ten” list of treaty targets, homeschooling doesn’t even make an appearance. But that doesn’t mean that homeschoolers are any less its core constituency; just that they’ll be working more quietly behind the scenes, and defending their interests through appeals to non-homeschooling parents.