Parental rights and state authority : the family in United States Supreme Court rhetoric

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Cook, Benjamin Lee

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With increasing frequency, the United States Supreme Court has faced questions pertaining to the Constitutional rights of parents. Contemporary conflicts between states’ authority and parents’ rights to shape the moral education of children are manifestations of a tension in liberal political thought. Although liberalism assigns responsibility for the education of children to private institutions, such as families and churches, there is a public need in liberal regimes for citizens to possess certain skills, habits, and beliefs. When these competing interests have come before the Supreme Court, its rhetoric has not always done justice to the importance of both interests. Here, I examine the Court’s nineteenth-century jurisprudence on polygamy, its important early twentieth-century cases on the family, and a selection of recent cases relating to the education of children. I conclude that the Supreme Court has in recent years put too little emphasis on the legitimate interests of states in shaping the moral education of children.




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