A Mississippi state judge has issued an order to public school attendance officers in his judicial district to provide the names of all homeschoolers there, prompting alarm at the Home School Legal Defense Association, which fights for the rights of homeschooling worldwide.
The order apparently is because the judge himself wants the information, as there appeared to be no case, motion or dispute prompting the request.
The HSLDA, which was alerted by its members in the 13th Chancery Court district in Mississippi, where Judge Joe Dale Walker issued the order, immediately sought and obtained a stay of the order from the state Supreme Court.
The judge's order noted that the "cause" for the order "came on for hearing on the court's own motion," but the HSLDA said apparently no hearing ever was held – and the order is the only document in the court file.
It also has no case number, the organization said.
Spokeswoman Beverly Kraft of the state court system told WND that the issue as it was presented to the state Supreme Court was a "confidential" case about which no documents, no information and no explanation was available.
The HSLDA said the order is highly unusual and could provide a "chilling" effect on not only homeschoolers but any group whose members' names may at some point be demanded by a judge.
The organization said the state Supreme Court ordered a stay in all proceedings in the case in which Walker demanded the names of all homeschoolers in his district. The order instructed Walker to explain to the higher court by April 18 exactly what's going on.
There was no explanation for why the judge issued the original demand for homeschoolers' information.
"At this time it is uncertain how the Supreme Court will proceed after receiving Judge Walker's response," the organization said. "It may simply issue an order disposing of the case or may require legal briefs and/or oral arguments before issuing a final decision.
"In any event, we will keep members advised of the status of the case."
An attorney for the group, James Mason, told WND that in the years he has worked with homeschool issues, he never before has seen such an order.
"It's a very chilling prospect," he said. "The plain fact is if judges start behaving this way – [targeted could be] people who attend churches or synagogues [or other groups]."
"That would have a chilling effect on freedom of association, and the exercise of other freedoms," he said.
A judge in a similar order could demand the names of patriot organizations, tea party groups, Democrat groups, GOP groups or even labor, teacher or parent groups.
HSLDA said that after attendance officers at the schools got the order, they notified homeschoolers, enclosing a copy of the judge's order.
"The letters cited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and asked the families to notify the attendance officer by April 8, 2011, if they intended to initiate legal action to prevent release of the protected information sought by Judge Walker," HSLDA said.
The notice from the HSLDA to its members said the judge also wanted the addresses of all homeschoolers in Smith, Lawrence, Covington, Simpson and Jefferson Davis counties.
Walker's order listed no parties but only said "RE: HOMESCHOOL."
"We believe that Judge Walker's order is an inappropriate use of judicial power," said Michael Farris, chairman of HSLDA.
The state's court website says chancery courts "have jurisdiction over disputes in matters involving equity; domestic matters including adoptions, custody disputes and divorces; guardianships; sanity hearings; wills; and challenges to constitutionality of state laws. Land records are filed in Chancery Court."
The chancery courts also are given jurisdiction in juvenile matters in counties that have no county court.