Religious Freedom & Parental Rights in Education

By Ryan Mayer, Director Catholic Identity Assessment & Formation, Archdiocese of San Francisco

Selected Quotations

“The fecundity of conjugal love cannot be reduced solely to the procreation of children, but must extend to their moral education and their spiritual formation. The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2221)

Parents have the right to choose the formative tools that respond to their convictions and to seek those means that will help them best to fulfill their duty as educators, in the spiritual and religious sphere also. Public authorities have the duty to guarantee this right and to ensure the concrete conditions necessary for it to be exercised. In this context, cooperation between the family and scholastic institutions takes on primary importance.” Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 240)

Public authorities must see to it that public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to exercise this right without incurring unjust burdens. Parents should not have to sustain, directly or indirectly, extra charges which would deny or unjustly limit the exercise of this freedom. The refusal to provide public economic support to non-public schools that need assistance and that render a service to civil society is to be considered an injustice. Whenever the State lays claim to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice … The State cannot without injustice merely tolerate so-called private schools. Such schools render a public service and therefore have a right to financial assistanceCompendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 241). See also Charter for the Rights of Family, Article 5)

The family therefore holds directly from the Creator the mission and hence the right to educate the offspring, a right inalienable because inseparably joined to the strict obligation, a right anterior to any right whatever of civil society and of the State, and therefore inviolable on the part of any power on earth…Hence it would be contrary to natural justice if the child, before the use of reason, were removed from the care of its parents, or if any disposition were made concerning him against the will of the parents” (Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Illius Magistri On Christian Education, 32-33)

“Just as the intimate connection between the family and society demands that the family be open to and participate in society and its development, so also it requires that society should never fail in its fundamental task of respecting and fostering the family. The family and society have complementary functions in defending and fostering the good of each and every human being. But society-more specifically the State-must recognize that ‘the family is a society in its own original right’ and so society is under a grave obligation in its relations with the family to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity. By virtue of this principle, the State cannot and must not take away from families the functions that they can just as well perform on their own or in free associations; instead it must positively favor and encourage as far as possible responsible initiative by families. In the conviction that the good of the family is an indispensable and essential value of the civil community, the public authorities must do everything possible to ensure that families have all those aids- economic, social, educational, political and cultural assistance-that they need in order to face all their responsibilities.” (John Paul II, Encyclical Familiaris Consortio, 45)

“I feel it important to reiterate that the overall education of children is a most serious duty and at the same time a primary right of parents. This is not just a task or a burden, but an essential and inalienable right that parents are called to defend and of which no one may claim to deprive them. The State offers educational programmes in a subsidiary way, supporting the parents in their indeclinable role; parents themselves enjoy the right to choose freely the kind of education – accessible and of good quality – which they wish to give their children in accordance with their convictions. Schools do not replace parents, but complement them. This is a basic principle: all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, 84)

“[The existence of Catholic schools] helps to promote that freedom of teaching which champions and guarantees freedom of conscience and the parental right to choose the school best suited to parents’ educational purpose.” (Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 14)

The entire Catholic community should be encouraged to advocate for parental school choice and personal and corporate tax credits, which will help parents to fulfill their responsibility in educating their children.” (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium, 2005)

Code of Canon Law

“Since they have given life to their children, parents have a most grave obligation and possess the right to educate them. Therefore, it is for Christian parents particularly to take care of the Christian education of their children according to the doctrine handed on by the Church.” (Can. 226 §2)

“Parents and those who take their place are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances. Parents also have the right to that assistance, to be furnished by civil society, which they need to secure the Catholic education of their children.” (Can. 793 §1-2)

“Among the means to foster education, the Christian faithful are to hold schools in esteem; schools are the principal assistance to parents in fulfilling the function of education. Parents must cooperate closely with the teachers of the schools to which they entrust their children to be educated; moreover, teachers in fulfilling their duty are to collaborate very closely with parents, who are to be heard willingly and for whom associations or meetings are to be established and highly esteemed.” (Can. 796 §1-2)

Parents must possess a true freedom in choosing schools; therefore, the Christian faithful must be concerned that civil society recognizes this freedom for parents and even supports it with subsidies; distributive justice is to be observed.(Can. 797)

“Parents are to entrust their children to those schools which provide a Catholic education. If they are unable to do this, they are obliged to take care that suitable Catholic education is provided for their children outside the schools.” (Can. 798)

“The Christian faithful are to strive so that in civil society the laws which regulate the formation of youth also provide for their religious and moral education in the schools themselves, according to the conscience of the parents.” (Can. 799)

“Parents have the most grave duty and the primary right to take care as best they can for the physical, social, cultural, moral, and religious education of their offspring.” (Can. 1136)

US Case Law

“It is the natural duty of the parent to give his children education suitable to their station in life.” (Meyer v. State of Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 1923.

“The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 1925).

“It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder. . . . It is in recognition of this that these decisions have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” (Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 1944)

“The values of parental direction of the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society…The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition.” (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 1972)

“The liberty interest at issue in this case-the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children-is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court. In light of this extensive precedent, it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children…The Due Process Clause does not permit a State to infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make childrearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a ‘better’ decision could be made.” (Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 2000)

Non-Catholic Sources

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (United Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 18)

Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” (United Nations, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 26 §3)

In Brief…

  • Religious Freedom is a fundamental right.
  • The right and responsibility to raise and educate children according to religious faith is an extension of both the right to religious freedom and the natural right of parents to educate their children.
  • The right to educate children in the manner of their choosing and consistent with religious faith belongs first to parents as primary educators, not the state.
  • The state may not supplant this natural right as the family is the first vital cell of society and is prior to any state.
  • When parents choose to partner with schools (whether state, private, or religious), the school exercises a function (education and formation) that belongs by natural right to the parents.
  • Parents have a right to educational subsidies from the state.
  • US case law has consistently recognized parental rights and choice in education and allowed for state subsidies to pay for the education of their choosing, even in religious schools.

5 Ways to Exercise Parental Rights in Education

  1. Be the primary educator. Parents are the primary educators of their children. Don’t see education, especially not religious education, as something to be outsourced. Elementary education has been described by some as “cooperative homeschooling.” The home should be a school of virtue, formation, and love. Have conversations with your children about what and how they are learning. Model that you also are a life-long learner.  Model and live what you want them to learn. (See Gravissium educationis, para. 3-7)
  2. Be involved in your child’s education. Ask for and expect transparency about what is being taught and how. Be in dialogue with teachers, pastors, school leaders, and other parents.
  3. Be a good partner in the education of your children. Do so charitably and supportively. Teaching is a challenging vocation. See your child’s teachers as partners in your child’s formation.  Be in dialogue, not just intervening when there is a problem. Schools can also be places of formation for whole families (National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Schools, Standard 4, benchmarks 4.2-4.5)
  4. Advocate for school choice. Parents have a natural, God-given right to choose the kind of education they want for their child. The Catholic Church even teaches that public subsidy ought to flow, under the principles of justice and subsidiarity, to schools of parents’ choosing. This is not a partisan/political issue but a matter of natural rights, justice, and even Catholic doctrine (Gravissium educationis, 6; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 241)
  5. Advocate that others advocate for school choice. If more parents (and young people!) understood their role as primary educators and their right to choose their child’s education, legislators would take school choice more seriously.


Archbishop J. Michael Miller. The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools (Sophia Institute, 2006).

Rev. Ron Nuzzi. At the Heart of the Church: Selected Documents of Catholic Education (ACE Press, 2012).

Pope Paul VI. Declaration on Christian Education Gravissimum Educationis (1965).

Pope Pius XI. Encyclical Divini Illius Magistri on Christian Education (1929).

Congregation for Catholic Education. The Catholic School (1977).

The Holy See. Charter of the Rights of the Family (1983)

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). See Chapter 5: The Family, Vital Cell of Society.