CARSON CITY — Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis’ bill seeking to give parents a “fundamental right” to make choices about the upbringing of their children ran into some tough questioning Friday in the Assembly.
Assembly Judiciary Chairman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said Senate Bill 314 appears to reach beyond a simple declaration of parental rights: “There is clearly more to it. We’re talking about whether or not the state can remove a child, can be required to return a child, based on the perception of a dangerous situation or a safety issue. I just think that we need to make sure that it is clear that is what we’re talking about here.”
“I don’t think anybody would have an issue if this bill only said: ‘Parental rights are fundamental rights.’ If the bill said that, this would be a two-minute hearing, probably. It’s clear that it goes beyond that, though.”
The two-paragraph bill has passed the Senate on a 21-0 vote.
In testimony for the bill, Denis, D-Las Vegas, said establishing in state law that parental rights are a fundamental right will help the courts when cases involving such issues come forward.
The bill is not intended to let parents to interfere with public school curriculum, shirk their fundamental parental duties, place the rights of parents above others or endanger a child in the name of protecting parental rights, he said.
“Instead the language of the bill is aimed at benefiting families,” Denis said. “It will benefit families directly through the protection of a liberty.”
It does not take away child protections, he said.
Scott Woodruff, an attorney testifying as an expert witness for the bill, said the measure would put the Legislature on record on how parental rights should be protected.
“As long as the Nevada Legislature remains silent, it creates an opportunity for a judge to follow his own preferences and downgrade parental rights,” he said. “Twenty-four courts across the nation have already done so.”
The question is whether parental rights will remain fundamental or be reduced to ordinary, Woodruff said.
But Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen, D-Henderson, said she did not understand why the bill is necessary because the Nevada Supreme Court has reaffirmed such rights through the U.S. Supreme Court case in Troxel v. Granville. In that case, the court struck down a Washington state law regarding child visitation rights.
“I don’t see where there is any problem here,” she said.
Woodruff said the issue is having the Legislature, not the courts, set the standard for making parental rights fundamental.
Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, asked how the language would apply when two parents are at odds over the care of a child.
Woodruff said the bill does not establish outcomes but gives a set of principles for the courts to follow.
The bill drew support from some parents but was opposed by the ACLU of Nevada.
“We support the fundamental rights of parents, but those rights are not absolute,” said a letter from the organization.
“SB314 goes too far by requiring courts to apply a ‘compelling interest of the highest order’ to any law, ordinance, or regulation touching upon the ‘upbringing’ or ‘care’ of a child, all of which are terms and phrases that are undefined.”
It could impair the ability of the state to enforce laws designed to protect children, the letter said.
After the testimony and questions, Denis said he would consider amendments to the measure to alleviate the concerns expressed during the hearing.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900.