What About The Rights Of Children?

Image of Sally Kern

Could a bill sailing easily through the Oklahoma Legislature have negative consequences for at least some state children?

House Bill 1384, or the Parents’ Bill of Rights, sets out various rights for parents of minor children, most of which are fairly innocuous. But a close reading of the act shows that some of the rights outlined seem to allow for abuse, negligence and unwanted religious indoctrination.

The bill’s main sponsor is state Rep. Sally Kern, the Oklahoma City Republican known throughout the world for her activism against gay rights. It passed the House on an 89 to 3 vote and the Senate on a 43 to 0 vote. It’s now back in the House, which must approve Senate amendments before it goes to the governor.

In a statement released after the Senate approved the bill, Kern said, “The Bible says that children are a gift from God, and it is the Legislature’s job to ensure that the protection and best interest of children always remains in the hands of parents to whom children are entrusted. I am thankful that the Senate agrees with the House on this. I look forward to House Bill 1384 returning to the House so that it can then be sent on to the governor.”

The problem with Kern’s reasoning is that it’s too absolute and, frankly, just wrong. Ask anyone who has ever been abused by a parent whether the “best interest of children always remains in the hands of parents” and the answer would probably be a resounding “no.” Consider the constant barrage of new stories about parental abuse in this state. While generally speaking parents do have the best interests of the children at heart, it should be just obvious to everyone, including child welfare workers, that Kern’s statement is a huge overreach.

Yet the real problem is some of the language in the bill itself. The bill, for example, makes this sweeping statement: “The Parents' Bill of Rights does not prescribe all rights of parents. Unless otherwise required by law, the rights of parents of minor children shall not be limited or denied.” Could a parent use this open-ended language to legally qualify their abuse of children?

The bill does note that it “does not authorize or allow a parent to engage in conduct that is unlawful or to abuse or neglect a child in violation of the laws of this state,” but it doesn’t spell out the forms of abuse. Is it okay for a parent to strike their children with a belt? Could a parent use the bill to avoid scrutiny by state child welfare workers, who suspect abuse?

The bill also ensures a parent can “direct the moral or religious training of the minor child . . ..” Note the word “moral.” How elusive that word can be in a diverse society. What if a child is raised and abused in a religious cult. Would the state have no authority to intervene? At what point does undesired religious indoctrination become abuse?

The bill allows parents to make “healthcare decisions for the minor child . . .” Does that mean parents can legally prohibit their children from actually receiving medical treatment? Isn’t it a parent’s duty to ensure his/her children receive medical care, rather than a “right” to make a decision about that care?

Then there’s this section, which would require school districts to develop procedures like this:

Procedures by which parents who object to any learning material or activity on the basis that it is harmful may withdraw their children from the activity or from the class or program in which the material is used. Objection to a learning material or activity on the basis that it is harmful includes objection to a material or activity because it questions beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion . . .

Again, the language is just too sweeping and general. What if the material being taught is going to be on tests that will determine a particular school’s A-F grade in the state? Can parents just create their own children’s curriculum without any regard for academic standards?

The bill goes on to specifically allow parents to withdraw their students from sex education classes and give their children “the right to be excused from school attendance for religious purposes . . .” As I’ve noted there are religious overtones throughout the bill, which isn’t surprising given Kern’s religious zeal.

Here’s the main problem. This state just settled a federal lawsuit in 2012 that argued Oklahoma was not doing enough to protect the interests of children under its care. What this state should be doing is working on behalf of children right now by stopping abuse as much as possible.

We can all agree that parents should have the right to raise and influence their children, but that’s not always absolute. To codify a bunch of absolutist, sweeping statements about parental authority is an obvious step in the wrong direction for Oklahoma given its history.