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Does the state have a right to monitor?

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Babette Hankin of Croyden, Pa., likes to show off her home-schooling program. Not only do her seven children stay occupied all day, but the five of school age seem to thrive in her regimented rotation covering earth science, reading, math, and even piano practice.

Yet despite pride in the program, Mrs. Hankin is suing the Bristol Township School District for requiring a yearly review. At dispute is the age-old but not yet settled question of who owns the children, and who therefore should oversee their education - the parents, the state, or God?

"We have a religious obligation to not have anything to do with the ungodly public school system," says Hankin, a Chris-tian with ties to the Free Presbyterian denomination. "These children are not Caesar's. They belong to God ... My husband is the one God put in charge of these children, and for him to have to surrender that authority ... is wrong."

Hankin's is one of two landmark cases pending in Pennsylvania courts. In each, home-schooling families are using a new religious freedom law to fight what they see as state interference. Twelve states have recently passed similar laws, putting a potentially powerful tool in the hands of those who educate the nation's 1.1 million home-schooled children.

Should plaintiffs win exemptions from reporting requirements on religious grounds, the verdicts could put a chink in the armor of an understanding, more than a century old, of children as a shared responsibility of parents and the state. Legal experts say a blanket overhaul of the principle is unlikely, but some widely watched fine-tuning of the important "ownership" question could be in store.

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