The message Michael Farris had come to deliver was a simple one: The time to act was now.
For decades, Farris – a conservative Christian lawyer who studied at Gonzaga Law School in Spokane and is the most influential leader of the modern home-schooling movement – had toiled at the margins of American politics. His arguments about the harms of public education and the divinely endowed rights of parents had left many unconvinced.
Now, speaking on a confidential conference call to a secretive group of Christian millionaires seeking, in the words of one member, to “take down the education system as we know it today,” Farris made the same points he had made in courtrooms since the 1980s: Public schools were indoctrinating children with a secular worldview that amounted to a godless religion.
The solution: Lawsuits alleging that schools’ teachings about gender identity and race are unconstitutional, leading to a Supreme Court decision that would mandate the right of parents to claim billions of tax dollars for private education or home schooling.
“We’ve got to recognize that we’re swinging for the fences here, that any time you try to take down a giant of this nature, it’s an uphill battle,” Farris said on the previously undisclosed July 2021 call, a recording of which was obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with the Washington Post. “And the teachers union, the education establishment and everybody associated with the education establishment will be there in full array against us – just as they were against home-schoolers.”
Nevertheless, Farris assured the conservative donors, their money would be well spent on this legal campaign. A conservative supermajority reigned on the nation’s highest court. In statehouses and at school boards, political activism over parental rights had reached a fever pitch.
“The time is right,” he said, later adding, “Sometimes it does take a while for seed to be planted and to germinate.”
The 50-minute recording, whose details Farris did not dispute in a series of interviews with the Post, is a remarkable demonstration of how the ideology he has long championed has moved from the partisan fringe to the center of the nation’s bitter debates over public education.
A deeply religious evangelical from Eastern Washington , Farris began his career facing off with social workers over the rights of home-schoolers and representing parents who objected to “Rumpelstiltskin” being read in class.
In recent years, he has reached the pinnacle of the conservative legal establishment. From 2017 to 2022, he was the president and chief executive of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a powerhouse Christian legal group that helped draft and defend the restrictive Mississippi abortion law that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. ADF and its allies have filed a flurry of state and federal lawsuits over the past two years alleging that public schools are violating parental and religious rights.
Yet it is outside the courtroom that Farris’s influence has arguably been most profound. No single figure has been more instrumental in transforming the parental rights cause from an obscure concern of Christian home-schoolers into a GOP rallying cry.
When former president Donald Trump called for a federal parental bill of rights in a 2023 campaign video, saying secular public school instruction had become a “new religion,” he was invoking arguments Farris first made 40 years ago. The executive order targeting school mask mandates that Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed on his first day in office cited a 2013 state law guaranteeing “fundamental” parental rights that Farris helped write.
In Florida, a home-schooling mom introduced Farris’ ideas to a state lawmaker, setting in motion the passage of the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights in 2021. The law, repeatedly touted by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on the presidential campaign trail, laid the groundwork for the state’s controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed by its critics the “don’t say gay” bill.
“He is our hero,” Patti Sullivan, the home-schooler involved in Florida’s 2021 law, said of Farris. “He is the father of the modern movement in parental rights.”
Fundamental parental rights measures have been proposed or enacted this year in more than two dozen other states, according to a Post analysis using the legislation-tracking database Quorum, and in March, a federal parents’ bill of rights passed the Republican-controlled House.
Farris has not been personally involved in pushing the most recent bills, which have been fueled by anger over COVID mask mandates and how schools are handling Black history, sexual orientation and gender identity. Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the right-wing group Moms for Liberty, which has become a powerful force in the parental rights movement since its launch less than three years ago, said it would be a mistake to overemphasize the impact of conservative Christian home-schoolers on the battles now playing out across the country.
Justice said she has met Farris but the arguments he was making in the 1980s haven’t strongly influenced her organization, whose members have pushed to remove some books with LGBTQ+ themes from schools and to restrict what teachers can say about race and gender.
“It’s 2023,” she said. “There are a lot of things that people thought 40 years ago.”
Yet to those who have followed Farris’ career, the adoption of his arguments by so many families unconnected to home schooling is a measure of his success. In the eyes of his critics, he has imported an extreme religious agenda into the heart of the nation’s politics through the unobjectionable language of parents’ rights. Some argue that it has always been the goal of the most radical Christian home-schoolers not merely to opt out of the public schools but to transform them, either by diverting their funding or allowing religion back into the classroom.
“Everyone should be aware of Michael Farris and his influence on the Christian right,” said R.L. Stollar, a children’s rights advocate who was home-schooled and has long warned of the conservative home-schooling movement’s political goals. “To Farris’s credit, he is really good at what he does. He is really good at taking these more extreme positions and presenting them as if they are something that would just be based on common sense.”
Farris, 72, has a long track record of taking stands on the right. He argued in 2003 for the authority of states to criminalize gay sex, a position the Supreme Court rejected in the landmark case Lawrence v. Texas. He aided the legal effort to keep Trump in power by overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election and has urged what he calls a “Joshua Generation” of young home-schoolers to “engage wholeheartedly in the battle to take the land,” expanding the political and cultural power of conservative Christians.
Farris nevertheless told the Post he supports the continued existence of public schools and abhors the idea of using them – or any other form of state power – to impose his religious beliefs on others.
“Do I want as many people as possible in this country to come to Christ? Yes, I do,” he said. “Do I want to use the government to accomplish that? I would absolutely oppose that with everything in my being.”
His parental rights agenda, he said, reaches beyond creed. And as more people embrace those ideas, he believes his patient strategic mantra – “take as much ground as you can take at the moment” – is paying off.
“I don’t want to say it’s my personal legacy,” he said. “It’s the movement’s legacy. Have I been a key player in the movement? Absolutely. It would be false modesty to say anything other than that.”
In 1980, the oldest of Farris’ 10 children, Christy, began attending kindergarten at an elementary school in Eastern Washington, giving Farris and his wife, Vickie, their first and only experience as parents of a public school student. It lasted about two months.
After that, they moved to a different part of the state and enrolled Christy at a private Christian school. But even there, Farris said, they became concerned their daughter was being unduly influenced by other 6-year-olds. In 1982, they began home-schooling, part of a vanguard of evangelical Christians rejecting the secularization of American society. Vickie, the family’s primary educator, would devote the next 33 years of her life to lessons at the dining room table.
Home schooling at the time was rare, its legality uncertain. The Farris family, like others, confronted suspicion: Farris said a neighbor once asked one of his daughters, then about 6, if she was learning how to read. In Farris’ telling, the girl responded by reading aloud from the front page of the newspaper.
In many states, school administrators and prosecutors viewed home education as truancy or even child neglect. After repeatedly hearing from parents accused in such cases, Farris hit upon the idea of a “home-school union” of families to share court costs. In the spring of 1983 – a few months before Farris moved his family to Northern Virginia so he could work for the conservative Concerned Women for America – he co-founded the Home School Legal Defense Association .
The basic idea, according to Farris: “You touch one of us, we all come to fight.”
Though it frequently worked on behalf of Christians, the association also represented Black Muslims and atheists.
“From my theological perspective, God gave those children to them, not to me,” Farris said. “And I’m going to defend their right.”
Over the next decade, Farris and the HSLDA were at the forefront of courtroom and political battles that eventually led not only to the legalization of home schooling in every state but also to notably lax oversight for home educators in much of the country.
He also showed a keen interest in reshaping public schools .
In the early 1980s, Farris argued that a high school English class was promoting a religion of “secular humanism” by teaching “The Learning Tree,” a novel by Black filmmaker Gordon Parks. His efforts on behalf of his client to have the book removed from the curriculum were rejected by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
But his most famous confrontation with public school officials came during a 1986 trial in Tennessee. His clients were born-again Christians who argued their children should not be required to read “Rumpelstiltskin,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and other material they said undermined their religious beliefs.
A federal judge agreed, ordering the children could opt out of the school’s reading lessons. But the decision in the case, Mozert v. Hawkins, was reversed by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that merely exposing children to ideas did not violate their rights. When the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, Farris was crushed.
In a 1987 speech, he called public schools “very, very dangerous” and “per se unconstitutional” because of the worldview they conveyed to students, according to “Battleground,” a 1993 book about the case.
“Inculcation of values is inherently a religious act,” he said. “What the public schools are doing is indoctrinating your children in religion, no matter what.”
Farris’ uncompromising positions gained him a following among conservative Christians, who helped him win the Republican nomination for Virginia lieutenant governor in 1993. But his views on education – especially his assertion in a 1990 book that public schools are “a godless monstrosity” – became a drag on his general election campaign. Prominent Republicans refused to endorse him. Democratic incumbent Don Beyer’s campaign tirelessly mocked Farris’ courtroom arguments against “The Wizard of Oz.”
In a good year for the GOP – Republicans won both the governor’s and attorney general’s races by double-digit margins – Farris lost by 9 points.
But Farris wasn’t finished. Soon after his election loss, he began incorporating his arguments into a cause destined to dominate Republican political discourse: parental rights.
On an October morning in 1995, Farris, then 44, sat before a House Judiciary subcommittee and urged legislators to pass the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act. The bill had been introduced by conservatives in Congress, but Farris, as he acknowledged in his testimony, was one of its authors.
He wanted Congress to decree that parental rights are fundamental, according them the same level of deference courts show to freedom of speech and of worship. Confusion abounded among judges over how they should balance the rights of parents against the duties of school officials and social workers, Farris contended.
“We are simply clarifying a right that exists – a right which comes from God,” Farris said.
To its opponents, the bill was far from an innocuous clarification, and the stakes for kids were potentially huge.
The law could shield abusive parents and wreak havoc in schools, children’s welfare advocates testified. Then-Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., predicted a barrage of lawsuits against schools from religious parents over subjects and materials they found offensive. Melvin Watt, an African American congressman from North Carolina, worried about the bill’s implications for the perspectives of racial and religious minorities.
“Having seen for all the years of my life how the curriculum in classes in schools has been pretty much devoid of any experiences in this nation from the Black side of America, it is to me kind of scary,” Watt said.
The bill never made it out of committee.
The parental rights movement won a more modest victory later that year when Michigan legislators adopted a bill Farris helped draft. But in 1996, the heavily publicized defeat of a Colorado ballot measure that would have enshrined parental rights in the state’s constitution seemed to be the movement’s death knell, recalled Greg Erken, a conservative activist who worked on the Colorado campaign.
“As so often happens in politics, people thought it was a loser rather than a winner,” Erken said.
Not Farris. For several years, he receded from politics, founding Patrick Henry College – the country’s first catering specifically to home-schoolers – in 2000.
Then, in 2007, Farris and other home-schooling leaders created a new parental rights group. Parentalrights.org, later joined by the Parental Rights Foundation, would never achieve its loftiest objective: an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring the fundamental right of parents to “direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children.”
It was in state capitols – not the halls of Congress – that the organizations were destined to find success.
In 2013, Farris wrote a Virginia bill closely modeled on his proposed constitutional amendment. He took it to Brenda Pogge, a Republican state delegate who had home-schooled her own children and volunteered on his lieutenant governor’s campaign. After revisions, the bill passed the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
The new law was “kind of a sleeper,” Pogge recalled in a recent interview. That changed dramatically eight years later, when an up-and-coming Republican gubernatorial candidate began to invoke parents’ rights on the campaign trail. Farris said he was among those who urged Youngkin to promise “to get rid of all the politics in the public schools.”
“Say that a thousand times,” Farris recalled advising Youngkin. “You’ll be governor of Virginia.”
Youngkin acknowledged Farris’ counsel during his campaign and said he continues to offer input since he won office.
“Mike has been just an incredible contributor to protecting parents’ rights and advancing this whole cause,” Youngkin said .
But some people doubt that Farris and his political allies truly believe that the rights of all parents are worth protecting.
In July, Youngkin cited the 2013 state law when he overhauled policies on how schools should deal with transgender students. Trans kids are now supposed to use single-occupant bathrooms or those matching their biological sex. School officials are not to address them by their preferred names or pronouns without a parent’s written request – and when parents do make such a request, the new policy states, teachers aren’t obligated to respect their wishes.
Labeling that a victory for parents’ rights angers Laura Jane Cohen, the mother of a recent high school graduate who identifies as transgender nonbinary.
“Whose rights? What parents? Who are these people that you claim to be representing? It’s not me,” said Cohen, a Fairfax County School Board member and Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. “It is offensive to me, the idea that this is supposedly a parents’ rights movement. Because it’s not any parents I know.”
While he has fought in court for parents across the political and religious spectrum, Farris said he doesn’t believe parents should have the right to help children transition genders.
“Parents who engage in a behavior that causes long-term harm to their children – that crosses the barrier of what parental rights protects,” he said.
The best way to accommodate different ideas about how schools should handle such issues is to give parents as much choice as possible in how their kids are educated, Farris said, through universal voucher programs like those created in a handful of conservative states.
It’s a goal he shares with some powerful allies.
In May 2021, Farris attended a gathering of conservative activists at which former attorney general William P. Barr denounced public schools’ “indoctrination with a secular belief system” that is “antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional, God-centered religion.”
Farris was approached after the speech by Peter Bohlinger, a Southern California real estate magnate who helps lead Ziklag, a group devoted to expanding Christian influence over American culture and government.
Membership in the organization – named after a town in the Bible that David used to organize raids against enemies of the ancient Israelites – is restricted to people with a net worth of at least $25 million, according to a page on Ziklag’s website that was viewed by the Post but has since been made private. The group envisions schools that welcome prayer and “a conservative, biblical worldview in science, humanities and the arts,” according to a Ziklag document that was among several recordings and other materials obtained by Documented and shared with the Post.
Neither Bohlinger nor several other Ziklag representatives responded to detailed questions about the recordings and documents.
As Bohlinger later recounted in one video, he approached Farris – then head of the Alliance Defending Freedom – about using the courts to achieve a far-reaching resolution to their concerns about public education.
Several weeks later, Farris was on the call with Ziklag members to make his pitch.
“Parents are being forced to choose: either pay for themselves for a form of education that is consistent with (their) moral worldview or send their kids into a system where they will be deliberately undermined,” Farris said, adding that school officials were “directly attacking the Christian worldview.”
It was a version of the argument he had been making for 40 years, but the stakes were almost inconceivably larger. Hanging in the balance were not the preferences of a tiny community of home-schoolers but the fate of tens of millions of children in America’s public schools.
Farris had recently set up a Center for Parental Rights at ADF. Bohlinger laid out the plan on the donor call: ADF lawyers would file lawsuits they hoped would lead to a Supreme Court ruling that declared a constitutional right to vouchers for private and home schools. As a result, Ziklag’s education committee estimated in one document, the public education system could lose about $238 billion a year – a third of its total funding.
“Our goal is to take down the education system as we know it today,” Bohlinger said in one of the videos reviewed by the Post.
Farris declined to discuss his Ziklag conversations with the Post, saying they were confidential.
ADF received a $444,249 grant from Ziklag in 2021, according to tax records – close to the $500,000 Farris requested. Ziklag gave ADF another $514,491 the following year, tax records show.
ADF has filed several lawsuits in state courts challenging schools’ instruction on racism or gender transition policies. Among the plaintiffs are Virginia parents arguing they should be reimbursed for education costs after pulling their children out of public schools they say taught an anti-racist curriculum. ADF has also filed amicus briefs in federal lawsuits brought by its allies asserting that school policies on gender transition are unconstitutional.
None of those lawsuits ask the courts to establish a universal right to school vouchers. ADF declined an interview request but issued a statement saying that “strategies to protect parental rights are constantly evolving.”
“Mr. Farris has worked on parental rights issues for many years and accomplished much in this area,” the group said. “ADF does not share all his views and is not pursuing all his theories.”
Farris told the Post that ADF’s lawsuits reflect “a more modest approach” than he once envisioned but could help lay a foundation for his larger goals. “I don’t think that the ground is ready for moving as rapidly as I had hoped originally,” he said.
Legal experts said that even if the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down the school policies being challenged, it is unlikely the justices would upend America’s educational landscape by declaring a constitutional right to public funding for private and home schooling.
“I don’t see five votes for that,” said Douglas Laycock, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Virginia. “There might not be any votes for that.”
Farris himself sought to manage expectations on his call with Ziklag donors, saying that even with the court’s favorable composition they faced a hard – and possibly long – road to victory.
But so had home-schoolers during their legal battles decades earlier. Those fights had eventually led to broad acceptance of parents’ right to educate their children at home.
Now the time had come, Farris argued, for another revolution in public opinion – not toward home-schoolers but toward the education system they had left behind. Whether or not the lawsuits succeeded, he told the donors, their work would have an important consequence.
“More and more people,” Farris said, “will be upset about what’s going on in the public schools.”