Skip to content

Parents, Not the Government, Have the Right to Raise Their Children

Parents’ rights to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children are fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Kate Anderson
Written by
Parents Giving Their Kids a Piggyback Ride

Shocked. Betrayed.

These were the words of Michigan mother Jennifer Mead after she and her husband Dan discovered that their school had for months prior been using a masculine name and male pronouns to refer to their daughter without their knowledge or consent.

How did this happen?

The Meads were involved in their daughter’s life and her school. Their daughter has autism and was struggling academically, so the Meads were working closely with school officials to support her. But when their daughter expressed a desire to be referred to by a masculine name and male pronouns, those same school officials “socially transitioned” the girl behind her parents’ backs while actively concealing it from them. The school counselor went so far as to alter school records, changing the male name and pronouns back to their daughter’s name and female pronouns, to hide the school’s actions.

The reason? A district policy designed to keep parents in the dark. And sadly, policies like these are becoming more common.

Not only are parents being shut out of decisions made at school about their children, but some government officials are even discriminating against parents looking to adopt and foster because of their beliefs about gender and sexuality, resulting in fewer kids finding loving homes.

Just ask Jessica Bates.

Jessica sought to adopt in her home state of Oregon, but when she applied for her certification, Oregon denied her application because the state requires families to adopt the state’s views on sexual and gender identities, forcing religious applicants to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. This includes using a child’s self-selected pronouns, taking him or her to Pride parades, or even facilitating a child’s access to harmful medical procedures like puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone shots—things that would be deeply harmful and unloving to children.

What these stories have in common is a blatant disregard for parental rights.

Oregon denied certifying Jessica Bates for adoption because she wouldn’t adopt the state’s radical gender ideology.

Although the law recognizes the rights of parents, parental rights are under increasing attack today. Alliance Defending Freedom is taking on precedent-setting legal cases to protect parents’ rights and enshrine them as fundamental in every state.

But, you may be asking, what are parental rights? What’s the history behind them? And why should they matter to every American?

What are parental rights?

Parental rights are natural rights given by God to parents to care for and direct the upbringing of their children. Parental rights include, but are not limited to, making decisions regarding children’s education and health care in a manner consistent with their family’s beliefs.

Parental rights are inextricably connected with parental responsibilities. Every parent has not only the right but the duty to care for their children. Parents must promote their children’s well-being and ensure their children receive the education—including the moral and religious education—they need to prepare them for adulthood.

Parental rights are “pre-political,” meaning that they exist prior to the formation of the government. They are fundamental and universal, and they cannot be given or taken away by any government.

Like all fundamental rights, parental rights must be vigilantly defended.

Why are parental rights important?

The connection between parent and child is one of the most basic human relationships. Parents know their children best, and parents love their children like no government official ever will. Parents care for their children before they can care for themselves, teaching them to walk, talk, and love.

While other relationships like those with coaches, teachers, neighbors, friends, and other family members can all play profound and meaningful roles in a child’s life, those people are not parents. No influence is as profound and enduring as that of the child’s parents, and in nearly every case, parents are best positioned to care for their children’s welfare. Protecting parental rights protects the well-being of the children in whom parents invest their love, time, and resources.

Parents are also the leaders of their families, and the family is the basic unit of society. Parents prepare and raise children to enter society, live as upstanding citizens, and become leaders across the nation. For these reasons, when the government protects the fundamental role of parents in a child’s life, it is helping to secure the future well-being of society.

Conversely, when the government undermines parental rights and responsibilities or seeks to replace the important role that parents play in their children’s lives, it is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. No one can take the place of parents, including the government.

What has the Supreme Court said about parental rights?

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the 14th Amendment protects parental rights. And the Court has repeatedly affirmed that parental rights are fundamental rights.

For example, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Court held that an Oregon law “unreasonably interfere[d] with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children.”

“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,” the justices ruled.

The 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder involved the rights of Amish parents to educate their children as they saw fit. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in his majority opinion, “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.”

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, Chief Justice Burger penned a strong defense of parental rights.

These cases affirmed what many know intuitively: the responsibility of raising children rests primarily with parents.

In 2000, however, the Court issued a fractured decision in a visitation case called Troxel v. Granville. The Court came to the right result in finding that a mother had the parental right to determine her child’s visitation schedule. But the justices did not use the opportunity to clearly define the legal standard for protecting the fundamental nature of parental rights under the Constitution.

Thus, some lower courts have used Troxel to confuse the law and limit parental rights. That’s why parents’ rights are not always treated as clearly and strongly as other fundamental rights like free speech or religious freedom.

While some states have fixed this problem by passing legislation guaranteeing that parental rights receive the protection they deserve, there are gaps in the legal landscape. These gaps reflect conflicting attitudes toward the rights of parents, particularly as they pertain to education, health care, and adoption and foster care.

What is the state of parental rights today?

The fractured legal landscape of parental rights combined with the attacks on those rights in education, health care, and adoption and foster care has sparked a growing movement of parents dedicated to doing what’s best for their children.

As we consider the state of parents’ rights today, let’s consider the three main threats facing them.

Politicized public education

More and more school boards across the nation are adopting policies that endanger children’s minds, bodies, and family relationships. Ideologies like critical race theory (CRT) and gender theory are permeating school curricula, leading children to become confused about who they are and how they are to treat one another. To give just a few examples:

  • In Virginia, ADF is challenging a school district policy based on CRT that discriminates against students and violates their civil rights. The Albemarle County School Board’s “Anti-Racism Policy” was adopted with the stated purpose of eliminating “all forms of racism.” Instead, it fosters racial hostility.
  • In Colorado, Jefferson County Public Schools, in accordance with district policy, secretly tried to force an 11-year-old girl to share a room with a male who identifies as transgender on a school-sponsored trip. Her parents, Joe and Serena Wailes, were kept in the dark about the district policy until their daughter called from her hotel bathroom, distressed about what to do.

Parents’ right to direct their children’s upbringing, education, and health care doesn’t end at the schoolhouse gate.

Gender identity politics, hidden ‘health care,’ and secret ‘transitions’

Parents have the right and responsibility to make medical decisions for their children because parents know their children best, including their medical history and needs.

Schools, especially, have a responsibility to keep parents informed about their child’s physical or mental well-being. They should never hide that information from parents.

Unfortunately, though, some public schools are “socially transitioning” students at school without telling parents, maintaining “secret files” about gender-confused students, and forcing school employees to address students in ways that are inconsistent with their sex. Practices like these not only violate the rights of teachers and force them to lie to parents; they also harm students and clearly ignore parents’ fundamental rights.

Just take what happened to a family in the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin.

School officials said they would use a male name and male pronouns to address the parents’ 12-year-old daughter without their consent—and even over their objections. The parents had to withdraw their daughter from the school to protect her mental health and preserve their parental responsibilities. Thankfully, the Waukesha County Circuit Court invalidated the school policy.

The court ruled that school district educators may not ‘socially transition’ children without parental consent.

In another case in New York, school officials concealed that Jennifer Vitsaxaki’s middle-school daughter was being bullied and feeling confused about her gender. Jennifer began noticing distressing changes about her daughter at home and brought her concerns to school officials, but they deceived her for months about her daughter’s condition, creating a “Gender Support Plan” to “socially transition” her daughter, inviting the daughter to join an LGBTQ club, and providing resources on “medical transition”—all behind Jennifer’s back. ADF is representing Jennifer in a lawsuit challenging this violation of her parental rights.

The government is not a co-parent with mothers and fathers. All parents have the right—and duty—to choose what’s best for their children, especially when it comes to health care and decisions that could affect the rest of their lives. Policies that ignore biological reality threaten student health and safety and undermine the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and health care of their children.

Religious discrimination in adoption and foster care

Parents should not be forced to compromise their moral or religious beliefs just to become parents.

In the United States, approximately 391,000 children are in foster care. Of those, over 113,000 children are waiting to be adopted. More parents are needed to find children loving homes, not fewer.

Unfortunately, states like Oregon are imposing ideological litmus tests, denying people of faith from adopting and fostering children because of their beliefs about gender and sexuality. This is what happened to Jessica Bates, whose story you read above. Other parents have faced similar situations in Washington, New Jersey, and elsewhere across the country.

Children deserve loving homes. Excluding loving parents of faith from adoption and foster care because of their religious beliefs is wrong.

Likewise, states should empower adoption and foster-care agencies to place children in those loving homes. In New York, ADF represented New Hope Family Services in two separate cases after a pair of state agencies tried to shut the ministry down. Why? Because New Hope only placed children in accordance with its belief that children are best served when cared for by a married mother and father. Thankfully, after federal courts ruled in favor of New Hope, the state of New York agreed to pay $275,000 to settle the cases.

Legislative action

In addition to representing parents in legal challenges to vindicate their rights, equally important is ADF’s ongoing effort to craft legislation and provide expert legal testimony to state and federal legislatures working to protect parental rights.

Did you know that:

  • 33 states have no statutes that protect parental rights as a fundamental right;
  • 44 states do not grant parents review of learning materials and activities in advance before the material is taught;
  • and only 5 states fully protect a parent’s right to make physical and mental healthcare decisions for their child?

ADF’s Center for Public Policy is authoring legislation that ensures the government cannot infringe on fundamental parental rights. This includes legislation that reaffirms the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, provides for increased transparency in curriculum, and ensures parents—not schools—are making vital health-care decisions for their children.

The effort to cement the rights of parents is multifaceted. It’s too important not to be.

How you can protect parental rights

The protection of parental rights and the health and well-being of children across the country depend on the everyday choices of concerned citizens like you.

Now is the time for parents, educators, and school board members to support laws that provide government accountability, choice, and transparency (ACT).

  • Accountability: Teachers and school administrators should not betray parents’ trust by hiding information about their children or indoctrinating them with ideas directly contrary to their family’s sincere beliefs.
  • Choice: Parents should know what their children are taught and have the freedom to opt out of controversial curricula. Parents should also be able to choose the schooling solution that best fits their family.
  • Transparency: Public schools should recognize that parents are ultimately responsible for their children. Public schools have a responsibility to be transparent about what they are teaching children and to respect parents’ wishes when it comes to divisive and potentially harmful issues.

We must protect parents’ fundamental right and duty to direct the upbringing, education, and health care of their children. Parental rights deserve the highest level of protection under the law.

Check out ADF’s Parental Rights page to learn more about how ADF is defending parental rights and how you can get involved.


Kate Anderson
Kate Anderson
Senior Counsel, Director of Center for Parental Rights
Kate Anderson serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is the director of the Center for Parental Rights.