5 families fight battle to win homeschooling freedom in TN

In this courthouse in McMinn, County, Tenn., a judge threw out the state's compulsory attendance law in 1984. (Photo Courthousehistory.com)

In this courthouse in McMinn County in Athens, Tenn., a judge threw out the state’s compulsory attendance law in 1984 as unconstitutionally vague. (Photo Courthousehistory.com)

The tale of home education in Tennessee is a wonderful story of local economy and free markets. Families were becoming increasingly convicted by reading about God’s law and His requirements upon His people by the reading of such books as R.J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) and Messianic Character of American Education (1963).

They became convinced that to obey Him they could not continue to accept the freebie of state schooling. So in the early 1980s they disenrolled and began home educating. They took upon themselves a duty they’d delegated to the state. They woke up from the American dream, which had been transformed. That dream now was that government will do everything essential for you, whether protecting your property, caring for your old people or teaching your child in the way he should go.

Five Tennessee families got their spelling right. Rather than say “on,” as in “getting on,” they said, “No.” They said: “We care enough and love our children enough to train them ourselves, and give them better facts, better ideas and better morals than you can in your taxpayer-funded schools.”

Two of the families involved in fighting the state lived in the Chattanooga area — the Charles Moffatts and the Steve Coopers. God encouraged them, and by His good grace they won. — DJT

By Claiborne and Lana Thornton 

In the fall of 1981, declaring their homeschool a private school, Charles and Susan Moffat of Etowah began home educating their daughter, Holly. In January 1982, warrants were issued for their arrest, criminally indicting them under the criminal provisions of the Tennessee compulsory attendance law. They were charged with truancy and fined $100 a day for each day out of compliance.

For two years their case crept slowly through the McMinn County court system. On June 5, 1984, in a precedent-setting ruling, Judge Steve Bebb of the criminal court of McMinn County dismissed the charges against them and struck down Tennessee’s compulsory attendance statute as “unconstitutionally vague” — that parents could not realistically determine what constituted a legal private school.

Tom and Eve Finlin of the small town of Chuckey in Greene County in northeast Tennessee began home schooling their children, Tony and Honey, in 1982, using Christian Liberty Academy. In December 1983, the Greene County Board of Education charged them with truancy and declared that their children “dependent and neglected.”

These are frightening charges because children so charged can be taken from their homes and parents by the state and put in foster care. The Finlins were told the charges would be dropped once they enrolled their children in the Greene County public school. They refused to stop home educating. Chancellor William Inman dismissed the charges against them.

Coming with arrest warrants in McMinnville

In January 1983, Ron and Diana Powell of McMinnville in southern Middle Tennessee withdrew their sons, Richard and Jesse, from their local Christian school to begin home schooling. For two months they home schooled in peace, but in March 1983, they received a phone call from the Warren County Jail telling them to come pick up their arrest warrants.

Criminally charged with violating compulsory attendance law and charged $250 bond to stay out of jail, they appeared in court two weeks later. The Judge refused to decide a verdict choosing instead to wait until the Tennessee state legislature determined the legality of homeschooling.

Credentials? No matter

Dan and Laurie Sain of Bradyville, a small town in Coffee County in southern middle Tennessee, began homeschooling their five children, Franklin, Melanie, Joseph, Jason and Alison, in the early ’80s. Laurie has a master’s degree in special education and holds a Tennessee teacher’s certificate. Their children’s test scores proved the children were on track academically and their homeschool was working. But the Coffee County School Board did not agree. The Sains were told homeschooling was not allowed in their home, but in a separate building it would be permissible. Dan, a contractor, and his sons built a one-room educational building in a week’s time.

But the Coffee County School Board changed its mind and voted to criminally prosecute the Sains. Deputies arrested the Sains, who had to post bond of $1000!

Then on June 25, 1984, Judge Ewell of the Coffee County Circuit Court ruled that home instruction complies with compulsory attendance law and, in agreement with the ruling in the Moffat case, that the statute was unconstitutionally vague. The Judge also dismissed the criminal charges against the Sains.

All of Dan and Laurie’s children eventually returned to public school. In June 1988, at the high school graduation of Franklin, the eldest child, the Coffee County School Board member whose vote led to the Sain’s prosecution, asked the Sains to please forgive him.

Ugly Chattanooga case vs. Coopers

Finally, we want to tell you about Steve and Debbie Cooper and their three children, Stephanie, Jennifer and Cory, who in 1984 were in their second year of home schooling in Chattanooga. The subpoena for Steve and Debbie’s arrest was left on their front door step while they were out of town. Using A.C.E. curriculum, the Cooper’s felt confident to represent themselves in court, explaining their Christian convictions for home schooling and showing the Judge their materials.

They appeared in Hamilton County juvenile court facing charges of child abuse and neglect based on truancy. Lectured by Judge Dixie Smith before he convened court, shaming them for appearing in his courtroom without a lawyer, he verbally condemned them for the terrible damage they were inflicting on their children by home educating.

Because of financial constraints, the Coopers determined they must accept a court-appointed attorney who was to use a brief prepared by A.C.E. for their defense. However, three different court-appointed lawyers informed them that Steve’s job with TVA provided them enough income to pay an attorney. Judge Smith then determined, against their wishes, that a separate court-appointed attorney would represent their children.

The children’s attorney demanded to question the children without either parent present. Steve and Debbie refused. When they next appeared before Judge Smith, he asked the attorney if she had interviewed the children. The attorney answered, “No.” Judge Smith halted the courtroom proceedings and ordered the attorney to question the children without the parents. The attorney’s questions were not those of one working in the children’s defense, but those of a prosecuting attorney. They included, “Are you allowed to have friends?” and “Are you allowed to play?”

Tragically, this precious Christian family was declared guilty of child abuse and neglect based on the truancy charge for homeschooling. They lived in fear of arrest and made plans to take their children out of state so that Stephanie, Jennifer and Cory would not be taken from them and put in foster care.

Their case was appealed to the next higher court. This judge refused to hear the case, declaring they could wait until the state legislature passed a new compulsory attendance law or they could appeal to the state supreme court. They wisely decided not to appeal but wait for the new law. They did have over $20,000 in legal fees they could not pay. Yet they give God praise for His care in sustaining, protecting and comforting them through such a traumatic time.

A family treks to Nashville

Like dozen of other families, the Coopers worked and lobbied for the passage of the best possible law for homeschoolers. On September 21, 1984, Debbie Cooper gave a very moving testimony describing their family’s legal struggle before our State Legislature’s Joint Senate/House Study Committee investigating home schooling in Tennessee.

This joint study committee was charged with the responsibility of making a report with recommendations on compulsory attendance, including private and homeschooling, to the full legislature by February 1985. In May 1985 then-Gov. Lamar Alexander signed the law that made homeschooling legal in Tennessee.

We can now home educate without threat of prosecution as these five families faced. Never take for granted that their courage and over-coming faith laid a foundation on which your freedom to home educate firmly rests.

With their cases in the forefront, THEA was formed in Nashville in January 1984 at the first state-wide home school meeting. At that event, Dr. Raymond Moore simply said, “You can either band together or they will pick you off one at a time.”  So we banded together and now all these years later, God has given us success, growth and vibrancy beyond our greatest dreams and prayers.

Learn more about home education in Tennessee at THEA or, in Chattanooga, and CSTHEA.

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