A controversial treaty on the rights of the disabled has reappeared in the Senate two years after it was defeated, with Democrats believing this time around they can muster the votes needed for ratification.
Fierce opposition, however, is once again emanating from a surprising source: the American homeschooling community.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was negotiated under President George W. Bush, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, and has been ratified by 146 countries thus far, but in December 2012 it fell several votes short of the 67 needed for full ratification in the U.S. Senate.
On Tuesday, the treaty appeared once more before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved it 12 to 6. All ten Democrats voted in favor, as did two Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and John Barasso of Wyoming.
The measure is strongly backed by hundreds of disability organizations, as well as many veterans groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. However, strident opposition has arisen from the American homeschooling community, spearheaded by conservative activist and homeschooling pioneer Michael Farris.
Farris’s organization, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), maintains that components of UNCRPD offer a backdoor opportunity to undermine the rights of homeschooling parents, and could also have sundry effects such as compelling government funding of abortions.
Will Estrada, HSLDA’s Director of Federal Relations, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the group’s major concern is with Article 7 of the Convention, which says that the “best interests of the child” are the paramount concern in any issue dealing with disabled children. The “best interests of the child,” he said, is a legal term currently only applied to custody and child abuse cases, and that opens the door for government interventions.
“We are very concerned that activist judges could use this to, down the road, restrict parents from being able to homeschool,” said Estrada, who pointed out that many parents homeschool out of frustration with the educational resources offered to their disabled children. The risk to homeschooling is even greater, he said, because the Convention never defines what a “disabled” person is, therefore leaving a great deal of leeway to individual judges.
The danger may seem overstated, Estrada said, but he emphasized that in much of the world homeschooling is already completely illegal, and ratifying an international convention opens the door to pressure from the UN, which he described as an anti-homeschooling body.
Supporters of the Convention argue that HSLDA is reading far too much into the treaty’s text, and counter that the treaty does nothing to change U.S. domestic law, surrender U.S. sovereignty, or allow for judicial action based on the convention’s text. Estrada said that he did not doubt the honesty or good intentions of these supporters, but he said it was necessary to look beyond the short term to what could happen many years after ratification.
“It’s just a matter of time before this treaty is used by activists to roll back the freedom we enjoy as Americans,” he said. “A liberal, internationalist administration…could run with this.”
HSLDA’s activism has helped rally other conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to oppose the convention, and Estrada said that he currently is very confident that enough Republicans will toe the line to halt ratification.
Sixty-seven senators must approve a treaty’s ratification, meaning that Democrats need the support of at least 12 Republicans for the measure to be successful. In 2012, when the previous effort at passage was made, eight Republicans voted in favor, five of whom remain in the Senate today. That means Democrats have to conjure up at least 10 new Republican votes.
“They have 61 or 62 votes, this time,” said Estrada. “The good news is, [Senator Bob] Menendez and McCain have admitted they don’t yet have the votes.”
A final vote is not expected until after the August recess, however, giving the Convention’s many supporters time to put pressure on lawmakers. Even the respected Republican elder, former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, has come to Washington at the age of 91 to lobby for ratification.
“We feel confident, but there’s only so much leeway we have,” said Estrada. “It will come down to what they hear from their constituents.”
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