Maine Wins Home School Eligibility Case

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.5, August/September 2003,

Shortly after Doug Pelletier won Maine’s 2002 Class D cross country championship while running for Seacoast Christian School, he was told that he would no longer be allowed to compete for the school, including during its 2003 spring track and field season. At the same time, Michael Stotts was told he would not be allowed to play for the Eastgate Christian Academy basketball team he had been a member of for several years.

Both were declared ineligible by the Maine Principals’ Association (MPA) because they were home-schooled students playing for private schools. MPA rules allow home-schooled students to compete, but only for the public school in their home district.

Pelletier’s parents filed a suit claiming the MPA violated their right to religious freedom and educational choice by not allowing home-schooled student-athletes to compete for private schools. In a May 9 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby upheld the MPA’s rules on home-schooled athletes, although the decision said that “perhaps people of good will could work out a better rule that would accommodate all interests.”

James Mason of the Home School Legal Defense Association represented the Pelletier family and was disappointed with the verdict. “This is different from a lot of cases that have been pursued in the past where home schoolers were trying to force public schools to allow them to play,” he says. “Here you had a family that for conscientious reasons wouldn’t participate with the public school, a willing private school that is in agreement with all of their religious beliefs, and no real harm in allowing these kids to play for that private school. These families had been participating for these private schools without any complaint and without any problems for many years.”

MPA Executive Director Richard Durost disagrees, pointing out that home schoolers are simply held to the same rules as traditional students. He also points out that Maine is one of only 10 to 14 states that allow home-schooled athletes to compete at all.

“MPA policy is actually one of the more liberal, if I can use that term, approaches to making sure that home schoolers have some opportunity to participate,” he says. “They have the opportunity to participate in the local publicly funded school because they’re tax payers who live in that town. But just like any other student, if they want to participate at a different school, private or public, they need to be enrolled in that other school.”

The students’ ineligibility came to light after a small private school asked the MPA about the legality of having a home-schooled student on its roster. When told that MPA rules prohibit home schoolers from participating for schools other than the public school in their district, the questioning school mentioned that a handful of private schools had home schoolers competing on their teams. The MPA then sent a notice to its member schools reiterating the rules regarding athletic eligibility for home-schooled athletes.

“About five schools said they had been under the misimpression that it was okay [for home schoolers to compete for their teams], but that from now on they would adhere to the rule,” Durost says. “Since we believed the violations were not intentional, our executive committee chose not to penalize any of the schools nor any of the students.”

Although the case ended interscholastic athletic careers for the current home-schooled athletes who declined to play for the public schools in their district, Mason believes it’s possible that future home schoolers in Maine will be allowed to compete for private schools. A bill addressing the issue in the state legislature was introduced during its most recent session, although it did not make it out of committee.

“Even though the judge didn’t agree with our constitutional argument, I think our case demonstrated there can be reasonable accommodations that allow home schoolers to play for both public and private schools,” he says. “We anticipate that the MPA may indeed revisit this rule in the future and accommodate home schoolers playing for private schools.”

Durost says the association reviews all of its rules on a regular basis and the rule on home school student eligibility will likely receive extra attention. “We will determine whether what we are doing continues to be appropriate, as we believe it has been over the past seven years, or whether it might need some tweaking,” he says. “Personally speaking, I would not expect major changes, but it’s conceivable that there could be a recommendation for some fine tuning over the course of the next year or so.

“Putting the individual issue [of home schooler participation for private schools] aside,” Durost adds, “the most important thing that came out of this was the judge saying that as a private organization made up of 153 member schools, we can, by majority vote, set reasonable policy that all 153 schools are expected to adhere to. I think it was an important opportunity for the courts to say that as long as we are acting reasonably, then we have the right to set our own policies and rules.”