"Taking Liberties," Indeed: Fox Presents Parental Dispute As Battle Over Religious Freedom

››› ››› FAE JENCKS

Fox News has debuted a new segment called "Taking Liberties" in which it purports to investigate "challenges to the individual's constitutional rights." In its first installment, Fox took the side of a right-wing activist group that is representing a mother in a divorce dispute, repeating its false claim that she was deemed "too religious" to home-school her daughter; Fox all but ignored the father's side of the case.

Fox Touts Case As "Test[ing] The Limits Of The U.S. Constitution"

America's Newsroom Portrays Case As A "Constitutional Conflict." From America's Newsroom:

ARTHEL NEVILLE (co-host): Today, we're going to kick off a new series, "Taking Liberties." It's our special coverage focusing on challenges to the individual's constitutional rights and civil liberties. And today, we debut with a New Hampshire mother who says she has been told she cannot home-school her daughter because her household is too religious. Now, this has become a very big story in New England. Douglas Kennedy spoke with her for the first time on TV. Doug, what's the story here?

KENNEDY: Hey, Arthel. Yeah, she says she was too Christian for her ex-husband and a New Hampshire judge. Now, the New Hampshire Supreme Court will determine whether her rights were violated.

[begin video clip]

KENNEDY: So, these are some of Amanda's study books.

BRENDA VOYDATCH (mother): Yes, they are.

KENNEDY: Like many parents who home-school, Brenda Voydatch believes in the importance of teaching the basics of reading and writing.

KENNEDY: But you also believe in the importance of a religious education.

VOYDATCH: I do.

KENNEDY: Explain that.

VOYDATCH: I believe it is a parent's fundamental right to teach their child the beliefs within their home.

KENNEDY: It was teaching those beliefs that she says led to her ex-husband's objections. She also says it led to a New Hampshire judge to order her daughter Amanda into attend public school. A clear constitutional violation, according to her attorney, John Anthony Simmons.

KENNEDY: What did the judge say that you object to?

SIMMONS: Well, the judge said that Amanda reflected her mother's rigidity on matters of faith, and that because of that rigidity, she needed to be ordered in government-run schools.

KENNEDY: John Anthony has already argued the case in front of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. He says he'll take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. But not everyone sees it as a federal case. Including the lawyer for Brenda's ex-husband.

JOSHUA GORDON (attorney for father): It's not really about religion. It's simply about two parents who differ on child-rearing philosophy.

KENNEDY: So, your opposing counsel says this is not about religious freedom, this is about two divorced parents having a dispute. What do you say to that?

SIMMONS: Well, it's -- this matter clearly is about religion. And if this case isn't about religion, I don't know what case is.

[end video clip]

KENNEDY: [inaudible] expect the New Hampshire Supreme Court to release its decision sometime in the next few weeks. That's it from here, Arthel, back to you.

NEVILLE: Douglas, it's weird. I mean, I went to 13 years of Catholic school. I don't get it. That's including one year of college, by the way. All right, Douglas, thank you.

KENNEDY: There are a lot of constitutional conflicts out there, Arthel. We'll have them for you.

NEVILLE: Yeah, we look forward to it. [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 1/27/11]

Fox's Kennedy: This Is A "Case That May Very Well Test The Limits Of The U.S. Constitution." From Happening Now:

JON SCOTT (co-host): A new series to debut for you today, "Taking Liberties," highlighting people whose constitutional rights are challenged. Right now, one New Hampshire mother says she's been told she cannot home-school her own daughter. Why? Douglas Kennedy spoke with the mom for the first time on television. Douglas, what is the answer?

KENNEDY: Yeah, John, home schooling is already a controversial topic to begin with. But when you add in religion, you get a case that may very well test the limits of the U.S. Constitution.

[begin video clip]

KENNEDY: So, these are some of Amanda's study books.

VOYDATCH: Yes, they are.

KENNEDY: Like many parents who home-school, Brenda Voydatch believes in the importance of teaching the basics of reading and writing.

KENNEDY: But you also believe in the importance of a religious education.

VOYDATCH: I do.

KENNEDY: Explain that.

VOYDATCH: I believe it is a parent's fundamental right to teach their child the beliefs within their home.

KENNEDY: It was teaching those beliefs that she says led to her ex-husband's objections. She also says it led to a New Hampshire judge to order her daughter Amanda to attend public school. A clear constitutional violation, according to her attorney, John Anthony Simmons.

KENNEDY: What did the judge say that you object to?

SIMMONS: Well, the judge said that Amanda reflected her mother's rigidity on matters of faith, and that because of that rigidity, she needed to be ordered into government-run schools.

KENNEDY: John Anthony has already argued the case in front of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. He says he'll take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. But not everyone sees it as a federal case. Including the lawyer for Brenda's ex-husband.

GORDON: It's not really about religion. It's simply about two parents who differ on child-rearing philosophy.

KENNEDY: So, your opposing counsel says this is not about religious freedom, this is about two divorced parents having a dispute. What do you say to that?

SIMMONS: Well, it's -- this matter clearly is about religion. And if this case isn't about religion, I don't know what case is.

[end video clip]

KENNEDY: And he says if the judges agree with that, the Constitution compels them to let his client home-school her daughter. That's it from here, Jon. Back to you.

SCOTT: All right. Douglas Kennedy, thank you. [Fox News, Happening Now, 1/27/11]

MacCallum: NH Supreme Court's Decision "Could Impact All Home-Schooled Children." From America Live:

MARTHA MacCALLUM (guest host): How about this? Too religious to home-school her daughter, that's the charge. In a brand-new series that we call "Taking Liberties," there is this case. A New Hampshire court orders an 11-year-old to go back to the public school. There she is with her mom. Now, the state Supreme Court has heard arguments in this case, and its decision could impact all home-schooled children. Douglas Kennedy joins us now with this very interesting debate over home schooling. Hi, Douglas.

KENNEDY: Hey, Martha. Yeah, home schooling is already a controversial practice, but when you add in religion, you get a case that may very well test the limits of the U.S. Constitution.

[begin video clip]

KENNEDY: So, these are some of Amanda's study books.

VOYDATCH: Yes, they are.

KENNEDY: Like many parents who home-school, Brenda Voydatch believes in the importance of teaching the basics of reading and writing.

KENNEDY: But you also believe in the importance of a religious education.

VOYDATCH: I do.

KENNEDY: Explain that.

VOYDATCH: I believe it is a parent's fundamental right to teach their child the beliefs within their home.

KENNEDY: It was teaching those beliefs that she says led to her ex-husband's objections. She also says it led to a New Hampshire judge to order her daughter Amanda to attend public school. A clear constitutional violation, according to her attorney, John Anthony Simmons.

KENNEDY: What did the judge say that you object to?

SIMMONS: Well, the judge said that Amanda reflected her mother's rigidity on matters of faith, and that because of that rigidity, she needed to be ordered into government-run schools.

KENNEDY: John Anthony has already argued the case in front of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. He says he'll take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. But not everyone sees it as a federal case. Including the lawyer for Brenda's ex-husband.

GORDON: It's not really about religion. It's simply about two parents who differ on child-rearing philosophy.

KENNEDY: So, your opposing counsel says this is not about religious freedom, this is about two divorced parents having a dispute. What do you say to that?

SIMMONS: Well, it's -- this matter clearly is about religion. And if this case isn't about religion, I don't know what case is.

[end video clip]

KENNEDY: The lawyers expect the New Hampshire Supreme Court to release its decision sometime in the next few weeks. That's it from here, Martha. Back to you.

MacCALLUM: Fascinating case. Douglas, thank you very much for bringing that to us. [Fox News, America Live, 1/27/11]

Carlson Suggests "The State And The Government" Told Mrs. Voydatch She Is "Too Religious As A Parent" To Home-School Her Daughter. From Fox & Friends:

GRETCHEN CARLSON (co-host): Well, should the government decide what kind of education your child gets? Well, New Hampshire's state Supreme Court is deciding if 11-year-old Amanda Voydatch should be forced to go to public school instead of being home-schooled. In 2009, Amanda's dad sued her mother to stop home-schooling their daughter because he claims the schooling was, quote "too religious." We're joined now by Amanda's mother, Brenda Voydatch, and her attorney John Anthony Simmons. Good morning to both of you.

VOYDATCH: Good morning.

SIMMONS: Good morning, Gretchen.

CARLSON: Mrs. Voydatch, I'm trying to get this straight in my head. You decided to home-school your daughter, and now the state and the government is telling you you're too religious as a parent to do that?

VOYDATCH: That's exactly right. I home-schooled my daughter for four years. First, second, third, and fourth grade. And then they -- the court found that my home school was an absolute success both academically as well as socially. And they really just moved that criteria aside, and they came in and they said, "But we have also found that your religion is too rigid, so we're putting your daughter into public school."

CARLSON: Mr. Simmons, I don't quite understand this, because we actually have religious schools, private schools all across the country that teach religion. So what the heck would be the difference?

SIMMONS: Well, you're not the only person scratching your head. I've been involved in this case for two years, and I'm still trying to figure it out. So don't feel academically inept for asking yourself that same question.

The fact of the matter is, is that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions for their children with regard to education. Any parent does, as well as my client. And the fact is, is that the court punished my client for having religious beliefs, and the child as well, and we believe that that crosses a line that no court should cross.

And if a court can make these types of decisions, there's essentially no limit on the court's power over families, and that should be chilling to all of us.

CARLSON: Yeah, well, let's take a listen to the other side of this story. This is the attorney for the father in this case.

GORDON [video clip]: The case isn't really about religion, and it's not really about education, either. It's just about two parents who disagree about child-rearing philosophy. [video break] It is a marital case, a divorce case, where one parent is on one side and one parent is on the other. Both parents have equal rights. So, you know, whether or not Ms. Voydatch has a constitutional right -- well, Mr. Kurowski has the identical constitutional rights.

CARLSON: So, Mrs. Voydatch, what are you going to do now?

VOYDATCH: Well, now I'm going to wait for the Supreme Court decision and pray that they do the right thing by allowing me to continue in my faith and teach that to my child at home.

CARLSON: All right. What an amazing story. Brenda Voydatch and John Anthony Simmons. Thank you so much for bringing it to our attention.

SIMMONS: Thank you, Gretchen.

VOYDATCH: Thank you. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 1/28/11]

Ruling Imposes No Restrictions On Either Parent's Ability To Provide "Religious Training" To Daughter

Parents Agreed To "Joint Decision-Making Responsibility" For Their Daughter. From the Belknap County Family Division Court's decision:

In their parenting Plan, the parties agreed to join decision-making responsibility for Amanda, including a provision requiring them to engage a mediator or parenting coordinator if they disagree about major decisions for Amanda. [Belknap County Court, Kurowski v. Voydatch, 7/14/09, in-text citations deleted for clarity]

2009 Ruling Explicitly "Declined To Impose Any Restrictions On Either Party's Ability To Provide Amanda With Religious Training." From the court's decision:

In reaching this conclusion, the Court is mindful of its obligation not to consider the specific tenets of any religious system unless there is evidence that those tenets have been applied in such a way as to cause actual harm to the child. The evidence in this case does not rise to that level, and therefore the Court has not considered the merits of Amanda's religious beliefs, but considered only the impact of those beliefs on her interaction with others, both past and future. The Court declined to impose any restrictions on either party's ability to provide Amanda with religious training or to share with Amanda their own religious beliefs. [Belknap County Court, Kurowski v. Voydatch, 7/14/09]

Judge: "Debate Centers on Whether Enrollment In Public School Will Provide Amanda With An Increased Opportunity For Group Learning ... And Exposure To A Variety Of Points Of View." From the court's decision:

The parties do not debate the relative academic merits of home schooling and public school: it is clear that the home schooling Ms. Voydatch has provided has more than kept up with the academic requirement of the Meredith public school system. Instead, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will provide Amanda with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view. Considering the testimony of both parties and the Guardian ad Litem, and by the standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the Court concludes that it would be in Amanda's best interests to attend public school. [Belknap County Court, Kurowski v. Voydatch, 7/14/09]

NH Supreme Court Justice: "This Is Not State Versus Parent"

NH Justice Lynn: "This Is Not State Versus Parent." The Associated Press reported:

Divorced parents who couldn't agree on how to educate their daughter have brought their fight to New Hampshire's highest court in a case that looks at whether families have a constitutional right to home school their kids.

[...]

The justices peppered both sides with questions about whether it rises to a constitutional case or is simply a family court dispute between the parents that the court was well within its jurisdiction to resolve.

"This is not state versus parent," Justice Robert Lynn said. "The state was forced into this because it's a dispute between the parents that someone had to resolve." [Associated Press via Boston.com, 1/6/11]

Family Practice Attorney: Not Fair "To Say Some Judge Went Out Of His Way To Raise Religion And Put It Down." From the Concord Monitor:

"When courts are called upon to make schooling decisions for divorced or unmarried parents, matters of religion must be considered with any other evidence parents present about the interests of their child," said Jonathan Ross, a family practice attorney in Manchester. He said it appears the Belknap County court acted appropriately in its treatment of a thorny topic. "None of that would have been in front of the court unless the parties raised and disputed those issues," Ross said. "I don't think it's fair to say some judge went out of his way to raise religion and put it down." [Concord Monitor, 9/27/09, via Nexis]

Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen: "This Case Is Much More About Divorce And Parenting Than It Is About Religion." From a PoliticsDaily.com column by Andrew Cohen:

The story of Martin Kurowski, his ex-wife, Brenda Voydatch, and their daughter, Amanda, is regrettably a common one. Yet the conflict between the parents over the future of their child has made it all the way to the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, where oral argument in the case was heard Thursday. And, thanks to a conservative advocacy group that specializes in freedom-of-religion cases, it has made it onto the national stage as well, perfectly timed to coincide with the latest skirmishes over the role of religion in American public life. The intersection of religion with public eduction [sic] always draws a crowd and great fervor. But this case is much more about divorce and parenting than it is about religion -- and New Hampshire's highest court will likely agree. [PoliticsDaily.com, 1/9/11]

Fox Reports Did Not Mention Voydatch's Lawyer Is Affiliated With Right-Wing Activist Group Alliance Defense Fund

Simmons' Website: "John Anthony Is An Allied Attorney With The Alliance Defense Fund." From the website of Simmons' law firm:

John Anthony Simmons Sr., Esq.
John Anthony started his legal career as a prosecutor and has been in private practice since 1999, during which time he has served as Town Counsel as part of his practice. John Anthony is an Allied Attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. He has been fortunate since attending their National Litigation Academy in 2007 to have been involved in various projects. Attorney Simmons is a staunch defender of parental rights. [ClearVictory.org, accessed 1/28/11]

Cohen: ADF Press Release On Case "Contained Not A Single Mention Of Martin Kurowski, Or The Fact That The Dispute Arises Out Of A Divorce." From Cohen's PoliticsDaily.com:

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the dichotomy in the case is through the press release issued by the ADF in advance of oral arguments. Approximately 449 words long, it contained not a single mention of Martin Kurowski, or the fact that the dispute arises out of a divorce, or the fact that the state court judge already has told the parents that if they agreed upon home schooling for Amanda there would be no legal dispute to ponder. The ADF's view instead pitched the story of this wracked family as the story of an overbearing "state judge" forcing a poor girl into a "government school" over the objections of her heroic mother in the apparent absence of a concerned father. This might be Brenda's truth. It might even be some truth. But as the judges and experts so far have concluded it's nowhere close to the "whole truth." [PoliticsDaily.com, 1/9/11]

In 2008, ADF Recruited Religious Leaders To Challenge IRS Rules Prohibiting Churches From Participating In Political Activity. From The Washington Post's On Faith blog:

Now comes the Alliance Defense Fund, an evangelical ACLU, to encourage gospel preachers to turn their sermons into partisan stump speeches three Sundays from now, and the tax laws be damned.

The ADF is recruiting preachers to challenge IRS rules that prohibit tax-exempt churches from engaging in partisan politics, step up to the pulpit Sept. 28 and endorse a candidate. [The Washington Post's On Faith blog, 9/9/08]

ADF Aims To Combat "The Homosexual Agenda," Which It Deems "One Of The Greatest Threats To Religious Freedom In America." From the ADF's website:

The homosexual legal agenda is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom in America today. For decades, radical activists, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its allies, have tried to divorce America from its Christian heritage and values. Their strategy is twofold: dilute moral values so that homosexual behavior is thought to be normal, natural, and good, while suppressing the religious and free speech rights of those who disagree. If they successfully impose their radical legal agenda, then all people -- especially Christians -- who do not affirm homosexual behavior could be silenced, punished, and possibly even jailed for so-called discrimination and intolerance. [Alliance Defense Fund, accessed 1/28/11]

ADF Led Initiative To "Combat Attempts To Censor Christmas." From an ADF press release:

The Alliance Defense Fund announced today it has more than 930 allied attorneys available nationwide to combat any improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property.

"Frankly, it's ridiculous that Americans have to think twice about whether it's okay to say Merry Christmas," said ADF President Alan Sears. "Thanks to the ACLU and its allies, Christmas isn't what it used to be. It's time to repair the damage that such organizations have done to America's favorite holiday. An overwhelming majority of Americans oppose censoring Christmas." [Alliance Defense Fund, accessed 1/28/11]

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