The parents of four children are appearing before the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights on Thursday to fight Germany’s near ban on homeschooling.
In August 2013, the Wunderlich family had just begun their first homeschooling lesson of the year near Darmstadt, Hesse, when around two dozen police officers and social workers “stormed the home” using a battering ram, according to the parents and a religious freedom advocacy group ADF International.
The children were initially taken away from their religious parents, Dirk and Petra, under Germany’s strict homeschooling laws.
Germany requires all children to attend school, and homeschooling is essentially banned, except for in very rare circumstances. Therefore, because the Wunderlich parents had refused to send their children to school, they briefly lost custody.
Parents who do not send their children to school face fines and imprisonment as well. Police are also allowed to take children away from their parents, as officers did to the Wunderlich family, and bring them to school. Authorities say they make such decisions based on the best interests of the child.
But Dirk and Petra argue that it is their right to homeschool their children and that the police raid caused harm to their family life.
“I sincerely hope the European Court of Human Rights will reaffirm that the state has no right to abduct children from their family just because they are being homeschooled,” said Dirk Wunderlich in a statement.
“Our youngest daughter was only four years old when the authorities broke into our home and took the children without warning. She could not stop crying for 11 days. Her older sister has not laughed since this incident. We chose to educate our children at home, because we believe this to be the best environment for them to learn and thrive.”
The Conference of State Education Ministers estimates that between 500 and 1,000 children are being homeschooled across the country despite the requirement to attend school.
In 2014, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled that restrictions on homeschooling were justified, explaining that the community at large has a valid interest in preventing the formation of religious or ideological parallel societies. The court argued that otherwise, homeschooled children could be closed off from engaging with those who think differently from themselves.
The European Court ruled in 2006 that there is no right to homeschooling, using similar arguments as the German Constitutional Court, saying that parents can teach children about their own religious convictions after school.
But other European countries are not as strict as Germany. The Wunderlich family, for example, wanted to move to France, while another family moved to Austria.
“Petra and Dirk Wunderlich simply exercised their parental right to raise their children in line with their philosophical and religious convictions – something they thought they could do better in the home environment. The right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children is a fundamental right protected in all of the major human rights treaties. Germany has signed up to these treaties and yet continues to ignore its obligations with devastating consequences.”
Clarke is not alone in criticizing Germany’s strict rules against homeschooling.
“It is in fact legally wrong,” said law professor Frauke Brosius-Gersdorf of the University of Hanover.
Brosius-Gersdorf suggested that rather than an “all-or-nothing principle”, Germany could consider whether homeschooled children could also become integrated into society in other ways, such as through sports or music groups.
But Ilka Hoffmann of the Union for Education and Science warned against weakening Germany’s school attendance requirement.
“It is a great democratic achievement,” Hoffmann said of the policy.
“Often what lies behind the desire for homeschooling are radically religious groups. It cannot be within the interests of democracy to fulfill these unreasonable demands.”
Hoffmann added that children must be protected from these kinds of sects.
But whether the EU Court would actually make any drastic decision against Germany’s laws is another question. And though ADF International is supporting the Wunderlich family, even their organization said they don’t think the Court will insist on overturning Germany’s essential ban.
“We hope though that a discussion about this will get started as to whether a complete ban is out-of-date,” said ADF International spokesman Andreas Thonhauser.
A spokesman from the Conference of State Education Ministers also said reform would be unrealistic, “unless the ruling would require it”.
“The stance is clear. There is compulsory schooling. Period.”