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The Battle for Educational Freedom | Michael Farris

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
The Battle for Educational Freedom | Michael Farris

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He started out as a politically-inquisitive 6-year-old. Now, he’s the lawyer who helped make homeschooling legal in all 50 U.S. states. Meet Michael Farris, founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association and President of Alliance Defending Freedom. You’ll feel empowered by stories of God’s provision and intervention as Michael tells of his days in the state Supreme Courts fighting for parents’ rights, Christian freedom of speech, and the right to life for the unborn.

Standing up for educational freedom is not a one-person job and this podcast will help you see that you aren’t alone, as well as show ways that you can help keep homeschooling legal in the United States if you feel inclined to join the battle.


Episode Transcription

Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode for better readability.





Marlin Detweiler:

Hello again. This is Marlin Detweiler. We are recording another podcast on Veritas Vox today and we have the very influential Michael Farris with us at Veritas. We believe that the education of children is the privilege and the responsibility of parents. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association has made a career or made an organization out of believing things like that. And it's been fighting for those freedoms for 35 years.

Michael Farris, with us, the founder of HSLDA, is going to talk to us a little bit about some of the battles that they've had and some of the things that they've seen happen over that time period. Michael, welcome. Glad to have you here.

Michael Farris:

Marlin, it is great to be with you. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, I got to start because we got to make you human. Right now, you're a big figure. And the thing I know about big figures in the marketplace is they have real lives, too. I was astounded. Maybe jealous is a better word to find out that you had, at one point, somebody wrote, 29 grandchildren from ten children. What's the current status? Give us a little background on that.

Michael Farris:

Your numbers are up to date. So my wife and I have ten kids, which is not exactly where I started off philosophically when we were dating! I won a college speech contest advocating zero population growth. I got $35 for winning that contest. It was the same week as the original Earth Day, and we celebrated Earth Day for years by buying $35 worth of disposable diapers. We're past the diaper stage for ourselves, at least!

But our grandkids are a range from newly married and have just graduated from Patrick Henry College. She's 23, I guess, and we have two that are under a year old. And so a lot of kids, a lot of grandkids, and I tell liberals, “You take over America your way, we’lll take over America our way!”

Marlin Detweiler:

And I think it'll work. It's really funny. I only have four kids, four boys. They're all married and we have six grandchildren, and one is not yet born. But I tell people, when it comes to age, I say, Yeah, I'd like to tell you the age of my kids, but it keeps changing. Pretty good to remember that!

Michael Farris:

I will give you credit the first two times after that, it's mine!

Marlin Detweiler:

That's great. Well, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, which is easier to say HSLDA, really comes off the tongue very well, by the way. I don't know if that was part of your thinking or not. Tell us about the formation of it. What caused it to happen?

Michael Farris:

Well, I was a lawyer in Washington State, and I had been doing statewide regional-wide Christian-oriented litigation. I had started the Moral Majority of Washington State, and then we changed that to the Bill of Rights Legal Foundation. And in the midst of that, my wife and I started homeschooling, and that got circled around a bit. And it was in the newspapers.

And I started getting calls from homeschooling families wanting legal help. And I figured this is a really good way to go broke because when people want a Christian lawyer, what they really want is a free lawyer.

Marlin Detweiler:

You know, I just want to say something. I love what I call a Christian negotiation. It just goes with legal costs as well. And it goes like this. I will not insult you by paying what you're asking. I insist on paying more.

Michael Farris:

That's great. I will come deal with you all the time.

Marlin Detweiler:

But it does cause people enjoy working with me. And when it happens, it doesn't always happen because some people price themselves too high. And I'm not willing to do that.

Michael Farris:

But nonetheless, basically, I figure that if homeschoolers form what amounts to a union where we all join together, we pay a little bit. And if they come attack one of us, we all come to the fight. And so that was the start in 1983. We're actually in two months; we'll have our 40th anniversary of HSLDA. And so it's been going, and there are over 100,000 families that are members today of the organization and the staff.

There is about just about 100 staffers that work at HSLDA. And so it's been a wonderful ride. I haven’t worked there for about seven years now, but I've been the chairman of the board for the entire 40 years.

Marlin Detweiler:

So you remain the chairman today?

Michael Farris:

Yeah, that's right.

Marlin Detweiler:

Tell me, in the early years, what were the primary hills to climb? What were the primary battles?

Michael Farris:

Well, homeschooling was just perceived to be illegal from our perspective. Under the Constitution of the United States, it was legal everywhere. But the government had a different idea. And generally speaking, it would be fair to say that it was perceived as illegal essentially everywhere in the country in 1983. And state by state, battle by battle, we worked on either legislative changes or judicial victories or other kinds of victories.

But ultimately, it was convincing people at large, including the general public, that homeschooling was an okay option. We didn't have to prove to the people that it was the best. You know, we, of course, think it's the best at best for our families, that's for sure. But all we had to do was to let people, judges, legislators, general public believe that it was okay. That it was good for kids.

And what happened was the vast majority of people who know homeschoolers think they're good. Think that their kids have turned out well. In fact, it's one of the reasons homeschooling has grown so much. People look at the homeschooled kids and say, “Boy, those are good kids. I'd like my kids to turn out like that.” And then they look at their parents and say, “You know, those are just average parents. If they can do it successfully, maybe I can as well.”

But we wanted a combination of good practical demonstration of success and solid constitutional litigation and legislative work. So it was a combination. But there's no doubt that the overriding factor is God intervened for us time and again. And if we don't give credit to God every chance we get the opportunity, A. God will remember, and secondly, more importantly, it's the truth of what happened.

Marlin Detweiler:

It really is wonderful to see how God's providence worked through all this. You didn't mention who you mentioned that the government really was your antithetical or where the battle was fought. What role did the public schools play in being your nemesis or fighting you in court?

Michael Farris:

Of course, the public schools are the government.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay! And I don't object at all. In fact, I use the term government schools. They are funded by the government with our money. Of course, they are directed by the government. And they are in some significant ways subservient to the government, but they're not synonymous with the government. Are you suggesting that they are?

Michael Farris:

They are. They are completely as much the government as the sheriff's office is the government, in fact.

Marlin Detweiler:

Unpack that a little bit. That's interesting. I hadn't thought about it that way.

Michael Farris:

Well, the corporations that you know, I live in the infamous Loudoun County, Virginia, where our public schools are off the rails. But, you know, the Loudoun County School District is a government entity. I mean, the way to tell is they're bound by the Constitution of the United States. Only government entities are bound by the Constitution of the United States.

And so they are government juridical persons, to be very precise about it. You know the Loudoun County School District is a government agency, just like the Loudoun County Sheriff's Department or the Loudoun County Health Department. They're all government agencies, and they are government through and through. And so, you know that at the legislative and legal level, the battle for homeschooling, was oftentimes the local school district, but not always. It was oftentimes the superintendent that was the problem. Oftentimes, the state school boards association. But the reality was we were in the legislature. We were fighting the entire education establishment, including the teachers union. And they are not a government entity, but they are affiliated with the government.

Marlin Detweiler:

No doubt.

Michael Farris:

And so, the teachers union opposed us, and still opposes homeschooling. And so we were fighting this giant establishment, which is the teachers union standing by themselves are considered to be the most powerful lobbying force in every state legislature in the country. That's just the plain reality of the fact. Yeah, and homeschoolers, time after time, beat them.

You know, it didn't beat them all at once. Didn't beat them in six months. It took 25 years approximately. But we beat them because we had the truth on our side, and God’s stronger than they are.

Marlin Detweiler:

Were there specific, significant hills to climb or battles to win that became pivotal moments in the success of getting over accomplishing the goal that HSLDA set out with of having all 50 states have homeschooling legal?

Michael Farris:

There were several important milestones in that regard. There were three states in the main early phases of homeschooling that insisted that homeschooled parents needed to be certified teachers. Those were in North Dakota, Michigan, and Iowa were the last three states that took that position. And one by one, we picked those off. I argued a case in the Supreme Court of Michigan that ruled the teacher certification law to be unconstitutiona.l

In North Dakota, we argued so many cases in the Supreme Court in North Dakota, and I was not going against opposing counsel. I was going against the Supreme Court itself. I was there so often, rather than saying, “Mr. Chief Justice,” and “may it please the Court”, I would say, “Steve, Fred, Larry, how's the fishing? Good to see you again.” And the reality was that the judges were just dug in.

And so we did an effort to bring homeschool leaders from the whole country and to North Dakota to, frankly, embarrass them. We called it the Bismarck Tea Party. Now, this was before the modern Tea Party movement. I went to a local K-Mart, bought every Lipton tea bag they had there, and we had homeschoolers clip little signals on them that said “consent of the governed for homeschoolers, too.”

And we passed those out to everyone in the state capitol. I mean, the secretaries, not just the legislators, but all the administrative offices, everybody got their lifetime supply of tea that day. And we frankly embarrassed them to the point that they relented and made homeschooling legal in the state of North Dakota. And in Iowa, we won a procedural victory in this state of Iowa that made it essentially impossible for them to criminally prosecute families.

And so, the legislature tried to change it to a child abuse prosecution where parents have fewer rights. And so on the day the vote was taken, and it looked like for all purposes that they had enough votes to pass this horrible bill, one senator came out on the floor right in the lobby area and said he couldn't sleep at night. His conscience was bothering him about this. And so he asked if there was a homeschooling family in his district he could talk to. And they got somebody on the phone with them, and he went back on the floor and made a speech that he was going to stand for homeschool school freedom. And that tied the vote. But it made it clear that we were going to lose anyway because the Democrat lieutenant governor could break the tie that we were going to lose.

But then they took a vote. And in this particular procedure, it had to be an absolute majority. One of our best friends was missing, and they took the vote, and they fell one vote short because this very friendly state senator lost track of his time. He was downtown listening to a speech by Newt Gingrich, and they took the vote, and they failed because they didn't have an absolute majority.

There was no tie. The lieutenant governor could break, and God blinded our friend's eyes to his watch, and he missed the vote. And that's how we won. It's just an amazing story! So that's you know, it was a story of things like that. Over time, God clearly delivered the victory to home school.

Marlin Detweiler:

Over three decades, I'll bet there are a lot of stories that you can really see God's hand at work in what was going on. That's incredible. What made you so comfortable with this? I heard you say, you know, your legal practice started as one that was seeking to be an advocate. Was it just things kind of just lined up one at a time, or was there some real serious moment in time where you said, this is what I need to do and focused your attention on that one thing?

Michael Farris:

Well, I know that I'm very unusual in this regard, but I wanted to be a lawyer from the fourth grade on. I started reading the newspaper every day when I was six, and I was very interested in politics. And one day my dad and I were changing the irrigation pipe, and he told me that if I wanted to get involved in politics, I need to be a lawyer.

And he pointed across the field to a lawyer's house. We could see across the way. And he said, Lawyers make $20,000 a year, and which was, you know, at that time, a new Cadillac was $2,000 a year. So lawyers make ten Cadillacs a year. Oh, wow! And so and my dad was a public school principal, and what he wanted me to do was to be a lawyer for school districts to fight the ACLU because he didn't like what the ACLU was doing in public schools.

And so I set off on that path. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on constitutional issues in school law. And in law school, I was kind of the resident con law guru. Some of my fellow classmates hired me to tutor them in con law, and the constitutional law professor hired me as his research assistant. So I wanted to be in constitutional law on education.

I also wanted to serve Christ in that regard. And so by the time we got through law school, I realized that the vast majority of public schools and the ACLU were on the same side. And so it was pretty easy for me to transition my interest into this area. And frankly, it was just my family started homeschooling, and the light went on. And so you know, God opened the door, and we said, this is what we need to do.

Marlin Detweiler:

And how did you end up now, Michael Smith was your early partner. How did you open it?

Michael Farris:

There was a man that frankly introduced a lot of people, including both Mike Smith's family and my family, to homeschooling. His name was Raymond Moore, and he wrote some books on homeschool-related issues. And my wife heard him on Focus on the Family, with Dr. Dobson and wanted to homeschool. Mike Smith, I heard him and his wife heard that same program, and they got interested in homeschooling, and I met Dr. Moore in person when he was recording a program for Tim and Beth Lahaye.

I worked for the Lahaye’s at the time and with Concerned Women for America, and he talked me into wanting to homeschool, and I wanted to talk to my wife. And she'd been praying about it for about three months, trying to work up the courage to talk to me about it. And so we started off, and I was talking to Dr. Moore.

He knew about Mike Smith, knew about me, and introduced us together. And so I approached Mike about the idea of starting HSLDA, and I called him and said, “Would you like to start this with me?” And he agreed. And so we've been together all the time. Mike’s still on the board of HSLDA as well. He just retired as president this past summer, and we've worked together for effectively 40 years.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's great. Well, in spite of the fact that I had never met you before this morning, I've had a chance to be in Mike Smith's office a few times, and it was always fun to meet with him because he always wanted to talk about golf. I've had a lifetime of playing competitive golf, and he always wanted to hear stories, and we had that in common.

Michael Farris:

That's great. Yeah. Well, I've gotten to like golf more in the last year or two, but it's so-so. Michael likes golf.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's great. Where do you see– You continue to serve as the chairman. So you're providing oversight and direction while not working day daily. Although chairman work can be daily work, too. I shouldn't say that. But where do you see the battles in the near future? The last couple of years have had some things come to fruition that have been brewing for a hundred years, but they've had some things come to fruition that are very challenging.

You live in Loudoun County, which is one of the epicenters of what I'm talking about. Where is the battle going?

Michael Farris:

Well, there's two related streams of the battle, perhaps in what's going on in the public schools in Loudoun County is, like you say, the epicenter of a phenomenon that encompasses almost all public schools in the country. I would say, you know, if you think your schools are the exception, you're probably wrong.

Marlin Detweiler:

Legally the exception, even if practically they're not.

Michael Farris:

Yes, that's exactly right. And so it's a woke ideology that preaches that there are two classes of people. It's the same dialectic as Marxism. Marx was rich versus poor. And they just have a different way of saying essentially the same thing: it’s oppressed classes versus dominant classes in the way they see things. So all white people, especially all white Christian people, especially white Christian males, are the oppressors.

And if you are a person of color, if you are a sexual minority, then you are an oppressed class. And it's time for the oppressed victims to rise up and take it to the oppressors. And I mean our county and our neighboring county, Fairfax County, just carried this so crazy to withhold the national merit testing results from the students who got national merit status. And they could use that for college applications. Because they're so committed to “equity”, meaning that they want to cut off any achievement, and they don't want people to feel bad, and they don't want white people or others or Asians to reign over other people who didn't do well. And so it's just all this class-based nonsense. They think of everyone in classes, whereas the traditional way of thinking in this country is about individuals.

And so, you know, there are individuals from every race, color, creed, and background that do well. There are people from every race, color, creed, and background that do poorly. And so, we need to look at people as individuals and not as just members of classes. And, you know, at the heart of it, it's socialistic. And at the heart of socialism is coercive violence.

Now, the homeschooling part of that is they want to force every kid in the country to learn in this fashion. Now, they picked a bad time to try out their biggest weapons. Elizabeth Bartlett at Harvard Law School got a lot of notoriety about two years ago in the very early days of the COVID pandemic for arguing that effectively, homeschooling should be banned.

There are other law professors, Katherine, at George Washington, Martha Albert Finnerman at Emory, Kimberly Dirocco at Northwestern, who all essentially say the same thing. And so there's a movement afoot to try to ban homeschooling so that all kids in the country, ban private schooling, for that matter. That's what the lady from Emory wants to do. They want all children to learn this woke ideology. Now, they picked the time to do that when effectively every kid in America was home-schooled for a little while.

Marlin Detweiler:

God has a sense of humor!.

Michael Farris:

It was hilarious! It was the only silver lining in the whole COVID thing. And there are a good number of people that converted permanently to be homeschoolers. But just think of the peace of mind that homeschooling gave to every parent in the country because homeschooling was so well known. People know homeschooling works, kids do well, I'm not going to freak out that my kids are going to be homeschooled for a little while.

And so we gave peace of mind to the entire population of the country that it would probably be okay in the long run. And so the political clout of homeschooling jumped a huge degree in that period of time. I say let the heathen nations rage in vain. You know, just try it. But we have to be on our guard because there’s going to be a day when they don't remember these facts, and they're going to come after us. And we have to be fighting for liberty every day, all day long, and never give up.

Marlin Detweiler:

The battle never ends.

Michael Farris:

That's right.

Marlin Detweiler:

That, you know, until death do us part, the battle goes on. You in 2017 gave up your staff role as the President of HSLDA and joined the Alliance for Defending Freedom. What was part of your thinking in doing that?

Michael Farris:

Well, I had been doing two jobs since 2000. I was leading Patrick Henry College. I was first the President, and then I was the Chancellor. At HSLDA I was the President, then I was the chairman, but I kept the chairman title. But as I was actively employed all day, doing all the appellate work and leading the federal lobbying efforts, and we came to a point and by the way, Mike Smith was the president during that period of time, but we were working together effectively as partners.

And I got asked by an executive recruiting firm to apply to be the President of Alliance Defending Freedom. And I knew about them in great detail, frankly, and but not as much as I ultimately once I joined them as their CEO. But I had the highest respect for ADF, and I looked at every aspect of what ADF did, I had either expertise in religious freedom and parental rights or I had at least some experience: right to life and free speech issues and the other issues that ADF works on, including training law students, they trained law students and my role at Patrick Henry college training students who are going to law school. I had a, you know, a great overlap there.

I realized that including I had a degree in public international law at the University of London, and there was a big international program. We have a big international program, I should say, now. And I just thought, you know, this is just too big of a coincidence. And so I applied, seeing how God had taken all the various threads in my life, and said, “I'm going to use them all in this season at ADF.”

And so I, I applied for the job. I guess there were about 300 people who applied, and they hired me. And so they had to determine whether it was God's will for me to be hired. I could only decide it was God's will for me to apply.

Marlin Detweiler:

Understood! Well, it sounds like there was a full circle in your career from starting as a generalist helping Christians in Christian matters that fell within legal circumstances to specializing in an area of homeschooling and then going back to helping in a broad way, going back generally that what a wonderful path to see that God took you.

Where are the goals taking ADF? What is it? How have they found themselves challenged and providing opportunities in the last few years in light of the kinds of things that have been raising their head more today than they had in the past?

Michael Farris:

Well, ADF, which is the largest conservative or Christian legal organization in the world of staff of about 400, we have an annual budget of just north of $100 million. And so we're multiple times bigger than any other group in this field. But we do some of the hardest sections of cases. The clash, the biggest battle right now in both the free speech and religious freedom areas, is the clash of the LGBT movement against Christianity.

And there's, you know, there are public school applications of that. We argued the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the Supreme Court by my successor, Christi Wagner, when she was general counsel, argued that case. She just argued the 303 creative case in the Supreme Court. This, I think, is going to settle the issue. And in the free speech zone of that clash, I think we're going to win.

We wrote the law in the Dobbs case for Mississippi, and we were co-counsel to the state of Mississippi at the Supreme Court in that case. So we didn't put our names on the brief for strategic reasons, but we were there helping them. We helped them with the drafting of all the legal papers and all of that.

And we embedded one of our lawyers full time, one of their staff for several months. And so we work in right to life, freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, parental rights, and moral and family issues. So all the transgender sports cases in the country, the ADF is doing those cases.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's wonderful.

Michael Farris:

So all of those are huge challenges. But we're being attacked regularly. We're called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And so we have high-tech companies canceling our contracts, and insurance companies have canceled our contracts. So it's they're trying to deplatform us because they don't want people who will stand up for God's truth in these areas.

And we will consistently stand up for God's truth and God's continue to protect us in these and these ways. But to say that we have challenges is the understatement of the century.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, you provide a wonderful example of a career in the public sphere that recognizes that this is God's world entirely and that we don't live separately as Christians. So our faith has wonderful opportunity for impacting culture, and in our world of classical Christian education, that's an ongoing conversation that we're always supportive of. And I love the example that you've provided.

I'm hopeful that a time like this podcast will motivate parents and students to think about how they might do the same thing in their sphere. And we see more and more advocates for God's truth in all of culture.

Michael Farris:

Well, amen to that. I mean, Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “in all the ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths,” and there's no asterisk put it at the bottom of the page that says, “Well, except in this area. Except in this area. Except in this area”, No, All of it is where we're supposed to acknowledge God.

So whatever we do, wherever we are, you know, God's in charge, and we're to be his agents. His spokesman. And we have to stand strong.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, ten grandchildren, excuse me, ten children, 29 grandchildren, founding HSLDA, ADF and helping and founding Patrick Henry. What next?

Michael Farris:

Well, I have just retired as the CEO of ADF on October 1st, and I have three part-time gigs right now. I'm still working with ADF on parental rights issues in particular, and also some of the international issues, particularly in India and Latin America, and then I'm helping the Convention of States project that I helped found ten years ago and principally working with testifying in state legislatures on that to try to rein in the abuses of power by the federal government by using Article five of the Constitution, which was one of my other brainchildren.

So it is my idea to start that organization. Mark Meckler was my co-founder, kind of like Mike Smith was my co-founder of HSLDA. I'm going to be the general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters on a part-time basis because their free speech rights are under attack as well because they’re Christians. And so it's an opportunity to serve there.

I've been on the executive board the last three or four years, and when I realized I was going to transition away from being CEO, this opportunity arose, and I thought okay, this is a good fit and I can, so I have three part-time jobs, but I've told them a third of it is 40 hours and another third is 70 hours. If you want to play golf three or four times a week.

Marlin Detweiler:

You need to come play golf with me.

Michael Farris:

I would love to do that. I'm finally getting a little bit better. The other day I shot my age, but it was on a par 64 course.

Marlin Detweiler:

Shooting your age is an accomplishment that is hopefully in my future. And congratulations for having done it.

Michael Farris:

So I was seven over par and shot my age so.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, I have one very important remaining question. This is not the question, but you went to Gonzaga Law School, correct?

Michael Farris:

That's right.

Marlin Detweiler:

So are you a Gonzaga basketball fan?

Michael Farris:

I am. In fact, I've created a law school ranking I call the Hoopla Ranking. When you take the basketball ranking and the law school ranking, you average them together. And that ranking Gonzaga is clearly in the top ten in the nation. But otherwise, yeah, not so much.

Marlin Detweiler:

I enjoy college basketball, and it has been fun to see a little school in the Pacific Northwest give ACC teams – I'm an ACC school graduate of NC State, and you see teams that fit and really play at a national level. Michael, what you have done for so many of us is something that I want to say for anyone that's willing to join me in this. Thank you. My career changed to serve the Christian school and homeschool community 30 years ago or so. And you have been paving the way for us for a long time and we are grateful. So thank you!

Michael Farris:

Well, it's been my honor and privilege. It's what I wanted to do since the fourth grade and what a treat to be able to do all these fun things. You know, they're battles, to be sure, but when you're doing what God called you to do, it's ultimately fun. It's very joyful. Well, you're welcome. But it's a delight.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, thank you. Today, folks, we have had Michael Farris with us on Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Thank you for joining us.