What Is the “Religious Exemption”?
Parents who have sincere religious convictions against sending their children to school may consider a claim of Religious Exemption (RE) to compulsory schooling under §22.1-254 B 1 of the Code of Virginia.
Families who have received a Religious Exemption are exempt from the Compulsory Attendance Code. Once approved, families with an RE do not have to file an annual notice of intent, submit an annual description of their curriculum, or submit annual testing or evaluation results to their local school division when educating their children at home. However, the public school division may in subsequent years inquire if the religious exemption is still applicable.
The statute, §22.1-254 (B)(1) reads:
A school board shall excuse from attendance at school: any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. For purposes of this subdivision, “bona fide religious training or belief” does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.
How to Claim a Religious Exemption
Send notification of religious exemption with any supporting information and materials to your local school board. Contact information for local school boards can be found here: Virginia School Boards Association.
Supporting documents may include:
- A letter that describes the family’s religious beliefs, particularly including those relating to the education of the family’s children and the spiritual basis for opposing attendance at school
- Letters from friends, relatives, or members of the faith, that confirm the family’s beliefs are sincere
- Scriptural or other spiritual quotations, if available, that support or affirm the family’s beliefs
- A letter or affidavit from a religious expert or scholar or a religious leader, if the family has such an authority, that confirm the beliefs as spiritual in nature and/or genuine.
VaHomeschoolers recommends that you keep copies of all submitted documents for your records, and that you submit your notification via certified mail, with a return receipt requested.
Read and understand the law, and have your statements in order. It can help to join a statewide or local homeschool support group where you may ask questions of other Virginia families who have filed for religious exemption.
Local School Boards and the Religious Exemption
The local school board considers and acts on a religious exemption claim. This is not a power granted in law to the school superintendent or central office administration. School division administrators may not make this decision and may not prevent a school board from considering a religious exemption claim.
The local school board may recognize or decline to recognize a claim of religious exemption from the compulsory school attendance requirements. In the opinion of VaHomeschoolers, school boards have the right and legal obligation to reasonably (not excessively) scrutinize religious exemption claims to ensure they meet the criteria in law. Local school board reaction varies; some scrutinize claims, while some do not. Some school divisions have formal written policies on religious exemption claims in their policy manual. You can read more about finding your school division’s local policy manual here: Finding Local School Division Policies.
Individual school boards determine whether or not family members must testify before the board prior to receiving a religious exemption. Be prepared, in case you are required to do this.
When the school board determines that your objection to compulsory schooling is a bona fide religious belief, and not primarily based on non-spiritual reasons, it must recognize the religious exemption. The school board is not required by law to respond to a religious exemption claim. Typically, school boards will send a letter to the family acknowledging that the family has a religious exemption to school attendance under §22.1-254 B 1 of the Code of Virginia. If no such letter is sent, the family may use the minutes of the school board meeting as proof of having received a religious exemption.
If a school board rejects a claim of religious exemption, within thirty days the family may request judicial review of the decision by the Circuit Court for that jurisdiction. The Court will only overturn a decision if the school board exceeded its authority or acted arbitrarily. This procedure requires legal representation.
Meanwhile, if a family is not exempt from the Compulsory Attendance Code then the family must comply with one of the lawful options under that law (public school, private school, filing under the home instruction statute, or using an approved tutor) or risk civil and criminal process for truancy.
How Often Do I Have to File Religious Exemption Paperwork?
Typically, once granted, a religious exemption lasts as long as your child is of compulsory school attendance age. In general, once you have filed for and received a religious exemption, you do not need to file again. However, in recognizing a religious exemption claim, the school board is excusing the child from attendance at school; it is not necessarily excusing the parents or the family as a whole for all time. Therefore a school board may expect that the parents re-request for any subsequent children that come of school age.
According to several Attorney General opinions, a school board is within its rights to ask a family annually or every few years whether its religious exemption status has changed. (Religious beliefs, however sincere at a point in time, may change. Thus the school board’s recognition of an exemption could theoretically change as well.) You can read these opinions here: Attorney General Gerald Baliles, May 29, 1984 and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, November 18, 1988.
If so asked, the family could simply write to the school board, informing them that their status was unchanged. The family might attach a copy of the letter of acknowledgement previously received from the school board, minutes from the school board meeting that granted the exemption, etc.
As long as your family’s religious training or belief remain unchanged, then your exempt status remains unchanged. Therefore, in VaHomeschoolers’ opinion, a school board may not cancel or withdraw exempt status without cause, nor may they set a date at which an exemption “times out.”
What If My Family Moves After Obtaining a Religious Exemption?
A religious exemption is between the family and the school board of the political subdivision (city or county) in which the family resides. Religious exemption families who move to another county or city are advised to inform their new school division in writing of their religious exemption status.
Does My Family Really Have to File Paperwork to Obtain a Religious Exemption?
Virginia law does not specify how or when, or even whether, to notify your local school board of your religious objection to compulsory schooling. However, reasonable people can ask how a school board can recognize the religious exemption of qualified persons if the board doesn’t know that they exist and that they are claiming the religious exemption. Families who do not send their children to school using the religious exemption and who do not file with the school board could face civil and criminal process for truancy, neglect, etc.
Do I Have to Belong to a Particular Religion to Obtain a Religious Exemption?
Families of every imaginable religious persuasion have obtained religious exemptions in Virginia. You do not have to belong to a particular group, sect, church or religion, but you must believe that the tenets of your faith require you to object to compulsory schooling.
The school board may not judge your religious beliefs or whether you have always held them, and it doesn’t matter whether other members of your faith hold the same beliefs. You must demonstrate, however, that these religious beliefs directs your lifestyle as it relates to the education of your children, that the foundation of your objection is religious in nature, that you believe with spiritual based conviction that to send your child to school would be against your religious beliefs; and that because of your religious beliefs, you could not send your child to school.
Is the Religious Exemption the Right Choice for My Family?
Virginia law offers many options for complying with the Compulsory Attendance Code. A school-aged child may attend public school or secular or religious private school, receive home instruction under one of the four options of the Home Instruction Statute or be instructed under the Approved Tutor Provision. Most Virginia families can easily comply with one of these options.
The religious exemption provision is not in law for the purpose of being a legal avenue for homeschooling, though it can serve that function for some. Rather, it is there as a way out of compulsory school attendance for families whose genuine religious training or belief causes them to be conscientiously opposed to attendance at school. In the opinion of VaHomeschoolers, the religious exemption should only be employed when a family’s beliefs cannot be accommodated under the home instruction statute or other lawful educational option.
The religious exemption is limited to families with bona fide religious training or beliefs causing conscientious objection to school attendance. Simply being a religious homeschooling family does not necessarily mean an exemption can or should be claimed. Merely wishing to avoid compulsory schooling, objecting to the Standards of Learning (SOLs), or objecting to having to report, file, test, or evaluate, is not enough. These are essentially political, philosophical, sociological, or merely personal beliefs, not bona fide religious beliefs.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Obtaining a Religious Exemption?
A religious exemption may limit your family’s future educational options. Once granted, a religious exemption is intended to apply to all the excused children for the duration of their school attendance years. This could be problematic in the future if you ever wish to send one child to public school while continuing to homeschool your other children. This could also be problematic if one of your children needs special education programs or services through the public schools, or wishes to participate in public school classes, programs, or extracurricular activities. If you can imagine a time in the future when your family might need or want public school services for any reason, then the religious exemption may not be the right choice for you.
The legal status of the religious exemption remains controversial. The number of religious exemption claims in Virginia has risen in recent years. While many of these claimants have bona fide religious beliefs against school attendance, some families may be using this legal venue as a way of avoiding annual reporting and testing. This growth in religious exemption claims has not escaped the attention of various lawmakers, school officials, and members of the media. The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers believes that the best way to protect the religious exemption is to only claim it when it is truly needed.
VaHomeschoolers considers its opinions above to be consistent with former Attorney General Opinions Gerald Baliles, May 29, 1984 and November 26, 1984 and Mary Sue Terry, November 18, 1988), as clarified by Johnson v. Prince William County School Board, 404 S.E.2d 209 (1991). Regardless, for actual legal advice, legal counsel, legal services, etc. on these or related matters, the family should consult an attorney competent in Virginia homeschool law.
This information is provided as a courtesy of VaHomeschoolers. It is not intended as legal advice. For legal advice, contact a licensed attorney.
The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers is a non-profit public charity with 501(c)(3) status; your donation is tax-deductible to the extent provided by law. A financial statement is available from the Virginia Division of Consumer Affairs upon request.