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Virginia Children Excused From School Last Year Due To Religious Exemptions From Education

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More than 7,000 Virginia children may not be getting any form of education as a result of a state law that permits religious exemptions, a recent study found.

Thousands of the state's students were excused from mandatory school attendance during the 2010-11 school year due to religious exemptions, according to a study by the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Virginia law school. But once a family receives the exemption, parents are not required to show proof of alternative education.

Under state code, parents who believe their children’s enrollment in a secular school will contradict the family’s religious beliefs can seek an exemption from compulsory education.

The Daily Progress reports Virginia is one of four states that provides an explicit religious exemption, and is the only state that does not require exempted students to satisfy any educational requirements, such as enrollment in a home-schooling program.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said the department presumes that exempted students are receiving some sort of home instruction, though there is not any follow-up reporting to confirm this assumption, the Associated Press reports.

Yvonne Bunn of the Home Educators Association of Virginia told the AP parents who seek the exemption “would probably rather go to jail rather than put their children in school, because they have very strong convictions that they’re following what God has directed them to do.”

Exemptions are granted or denied by local school boards. According to the study, nearly 95 percent of survey respondents said they had never denied a request for one.

Andrew K. Block Jr., the clinic’s director, says this is likely because most school superintendents feel they are not in a position to question the legitimacy of someone’s religious beliefs, reports the AP.

In 2010-11, 7,296 students were granted religious exemptions, up from 5,479 during the 2002-03 school year. According to Block, 7,000 represents more than the number of students enrolled in three-quarters of the school divisions in Virginia, and more than those enrolled in Charlottesville.

Additionally, “If children with religious exemptions are not receiving any education, it could well mean that the statute, as applied, impermissibly violates their fundamental right to an education under the Virginia Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional,” the study states.

In Missouri, an amendment passed by voters last month reaffirmed students' right to pray in schools. But another part of the amendment reads, "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."

Critics said the clause will create confusion by giving students the power to refuse completing assignments they claim violate their religious beliefs.

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