By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Three bills seeking to enhance parental rights had public hearings Tuesday as House Republicans seek to sidestep a prohibition on bringing forward similar content to a bill killed last year on parental rights.
That bill would have required school staff to inform parents if their child uses a different gender in school or different pronouns or nicknames.
It also listed a number of rights parents had particularly in schools, many of which are currently in law, like opting their students out of curriculum and sex education courses, and vaccinations due to religious or medical reasons.
Tuesday the House Children and Family Law Committee heard a bill to allow parents to know what books or materials or services their child used at public or school libraries, and two proposed constitutional amendments enshrining parental rights as fundamental or natural rights in the state constitution.
No one testified on the two proposed constitutional amendments besides the prime sponsors, and committee chair, Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, urged the two sponsors, Reps. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, and Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, to work together on one bill with a sub-committee instead of having two proposals going forward.
The two constitutional amendments were more broad and less specific than the bill killed last year, but would give parents a high bar to determine their children’s upbringing, education, health and welfare.
Hoell’s bill, CACR 25, would give minors the natural right to the protection of their parents in the control of their health, education and welfare, and parents the natural right to provide protection to their minor children.
He proposed an amendment that he said had been vetted before for unintended consequences and is similar to the four or five bills that have come before the House in the past.
Parents can forfeit their natural rights if they neglect to care for their children or abuse them or other actions that society deems inappropriate, he said. “Criminal acts against children would fall within that (provision),” he said.
But committee member Rep. Peter Petrigno, D-Hillsborough, said there are at least 14 US Supreme Court decisions that uphold parental rights for education, care and health of a child and asked what his amendment would add to that.
Hoell said the Supreme Court upheld the parents’ rights over education, but not so clearly over the general welfare or health of their child.
“This sets the bar that parents are the first accountable party for taking care of their children,” Hoell said. “The appropriate course of action for various treatments is to look to parents and doctors first, as opposed to the state and doctors first.”
He said with vaccinations, for example, there are some concerns and the best action may be to delay in the best interest of their children.
The proposed amendment would be “a guiding principle we as a society want to follow,” Hoell said, “one that restrains government not to step over lines.”
He said it would be in section one, under the “Bill of Rights,” noting the specifics would be in statutes.
Cordelli’s amendment, CACR 17, makes it a fundamental right of parents “to direct the upbringing, education and care of their minor children.”
He told the committee his simple, three-sentence proposal is drawn from Supreme Court rulings on parental rights.
The proposal looks at parental rights “from a high level,” Cordelli said.
The second sentence of his proposed amendment prevents government and all its subdivisions from interfering with parental rights and may only intervene when there is “a compelling governmental interest of the highest order that cannot otherwise be served.”
The third sentence said the constitutional provision does not apply to parental action that would end the life of or physically harm the child.
One committee member expressed concerns that the current statute protects against physical and psychological abuse, and trafficking their child.
Rep. Heather Raymond, D-Hillsborough, asked if the proposed amendment would override psychological abuse or trafficking of your child.
Cordelli said in such instances when something happens to a child, you look to the statutes not the constitutional amendment.
Petrigno asked Cordelli what his amendment would add to what the US Supreme Court has already settled.
Cordelli said he tried to encapsulate the key elements of parental rights in a simple paragraph for the state constitution.
He said he did it also to avoid any future issues on New Hampshire parental rights making their way to the US Supreme Court.
Petrigno asked if there is some way to inform people who do not believe they have parental rights, that they do have parental rights through the US Supreme Court decisions.
Cordelli said he tried to address that with his suggested language that would accompany the proposed amendment on the general election ballot.
A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifth majority vote of the House and the Senate to be placed on the next general election ballot, where a two-thirds vote is necessary to be placed in the constitution.
With parental rights a partisan issue, the passage of either proposed constitutional amendment is unlikely with the nearly evenly divided House between Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Arlene Quaratiello, R-Atkinson, wants New Hampshire to join other states and make what is now confidential information about library usage available to parents of minors.
She said both sides agree parents need to be involved in deciding acceptable materials for their children to check out of libraries, both public and schools.
But she said currently library records are confidential both for adults and minors.
House Bill 1308 would allow parents or guardians access to their minor child’s library records including books checked out or services and materials the child accessed.
Opponents of the bill, which include the public and school library associations in the state, the American Civil Liberties Union NH and an organization advocating and defending the LGBTQ+ community, said the bill is too broad and would require libraries to retain far greater records than they do now.
Others were concerned how the bill would impact the safety of children whose families’ experience domestic violence or when one parent has custody of the child, or when there are contested divorces.
Quaratiello said she is a librarian in her community and not being able to tell a parent what book is overdue or missing makes for some odd situations.
The more controversial concern is about inappropriate material that children may check out, she noted.
Opponents of the bill will say there should be inclusion and it should be up to parents to decide what is appropriate for their child, she said.
“But they need to know what books their children have checked out,” Quaratiello said, “that is particularly true in public school libraries.”
She said she understands some older kids may be concerned they do not want their parents to know what books they are reading. “I appreciate their need for privacy, but that should not extend to material paid for by someone else,” Quaratiello said.
They are old enough to get a job and go to a bookstore or to Amazon and purchase a book, if they don’t want their parents to know, she said.
Petrigno noted there may be liability issues for libraries which are likely not to know if one parent is forbidden from accessing information about their child.
What happens when someone comes into the library and says he is the father of a child and the library does not know he cannot access information on his child, he said.
Several other committee members expressed concerns about the safety of children if parents who do not have custody could access the child’s records.
Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, opposed the bill saying the scope of the bill is concerning because it covers far more than just checking out books.
“Certainly this is more than a disclosure law, it is a retention law,” he said, “and all records need to be retained.”
He said that will require resource strapped libraries to maintain far more records than they do now.
And he said there are privacy concerns. Reading a book reveals a part of yourself you may not want to share with the world, Bissonnette said.
If you are reading a book to figure out abuse or some very intimate things, he said, there are some real consequences to having that disclosed and outed.
The current statute maintains some degree of privacy and should be retained, Bissonnette said. “The intimate details of one’s life is really what we are dealing with here.”
There are more narrow ways to address the issue, he said, like a family library card so parents would know what their children are checking out.
“We have a harmful to minors statute and I would encourage you folks to look at it,” Bissonnette said. “There are other laws in place to protect against it. This is too broad.”
Karyn Isleb, head of children’s services at Manchester Public Library, said the bill would require the staff to triple in size.
She listed the number of programs the library offers and the number of kids who attend those programs, saying it would be impossible to check on every child and everything they did while they were at the library.
“This is unreasonable,” Isleb said. “We would need to triple our staff and would be a lot of added costs.”
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Garry is InDepthNH.org’s State House bureau chief with 40 years of reporting experience.