Germany Punishes Homeschoolers

Amid relentless government harassment, German family holds firm

Germany Punishes Homeschoolers

Amid relentless government harassment, German family holds firm

In August 2013 in Darmstadt, Germany, the Wunderlich family had just sat down to begin the first homeschool lesson of the year when the doorbell rang. As soon as Dirk Wunderlich opened the door, more than 30 police officers and social workers barged into his home and forcibly removed his four children from him and his wife, Petra. The children, startled and crying, were gone within 30 minutes. 

The Wunderlichs had endured court fines, harassment and threats for homeschooling their children dating all the way back to 2006. They at one point fled to France because of Germany’s harsh homeschooling law—only to be interrogated by French authorities who were tipped off by the German government.

Three weeks after the police raid, the government returned the children to their home—on the condition they attend public school—but took the family’s passports in case they tried to leave again.

The Wunderlichs resumed homeschooling about a year later, and today they are still waging the marathon fight for the legal right to educate their children at home. 

On Jan. 10, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously ruled that German authorities were within the law when they seized the Wunderlich children in August 2013. Lawyers with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and Alliance Defending Freedom International had argued in 2015 that officials had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the right to respect for private and family life.

“We are extremely disappointed with this ruling, which disregards the rights of parents all over Europe to raise their children without disproportionate interference from the government,” said Robert Clarke, ADF International’s director of European advocacy and lead counsel for the Wunderlich family. “Petra and Dirk Wunderlich simply wanted to educate their children consistent with their convictions and decided their home environment would be the best place for this. Children deserve this loving care from their parents.

“This sends a message that the state is ultimately responsible for deciding what is best for children. And that’s not the role of the state. That’s the role of parents. … This case is about homeschooling, and we say that that is a wholly inadequate, inappropriate basis to tear a family apart.”

According to ADF International, the Wunderlichs appealed the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, the highest level of appeal. As of press time, the Wunderlich family faces another lawsuit initiated by the same German family judge who ordered the removal of the children from their home in 2013.

A GODLY CALLING

Dirk Wunderlich became interested in homeschooling in the 1990s, when he got to know two Christians who homeschooled their children. He was very impressed.

“I understood that homeschooling is not only a good way to teach but also the best way to educate one’s children in accordance with God’s Word,” he told Decision.

Germany has prohibited homeschooling since 1918. But in recent years, the country has affirmed a number of international human rights agreements that aim to explicitly protect the right and responsibility of parents to raise and direct the education of their children. Nonetheless, the government continues to maintain criminal penalties, such as fines, imprisonment and the removal of children from parents who refuse to send their children to state-approved schools.

“It is estimated that some 10,000 people have emigrated from Germany in the last generation to escape harsh homeschooling policies,” Michael Donnelly, senior counsel and director of global outreach for HSLDA, said. “Some German parents continue to seek asylum in the United States, while others are relocating within Europe or to other, more homeschool-friendly countries.” 

Though many Germans are turning away from their homeland to homeschool, the Wunderlich family is fighting back despite tremendous government pressure.

“Although it may be within the legitimate authority of government to create a system of public schools, it is the fundamental right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children,” Donnelly said. “Choosing home education is part of that fundamental, constitutionally protected right. As a free society, we should value many different approaches to education—that is what it means to be a pluralistic society.”

However, in the court’s view, “the domestic authorities had reasons to assume that the applicants had endangered their children by not sending them to school and instead keeping them in a ‘symbiotic’ family system,” the registrar of the court said in a press release following the ruling in the Wunderlich v. Germany case.

According to Donnelly, extensive research shows that home education delivers superior academic results when compared with both private and public school, with research showing that home educated students on average score 20-30 percentile points higher on standardized tests of academic achievement. 

But more than the higher test marks, “home education also allows parents to have more influence and relationship with their children—elements that have shown to be predictive, positive and powerful in educational and general life outcomes,” Donnelly said. “Research by Dr. Albert Cheng [has] found that the more exposure a student has to home education, the more politically tolerant they are—debunking the idea that homeschooled kids are not well socialized.”

The Wunderlichs continue to fight for their family’s rights to be vindicated and for homeschooling to be legitimized by the German government. 

“A victory in this case secures justice for the family, a finding that what Germany did was wrong, it was unjustified, it was not necessary, it was unlawful,” ADF International’s Clarke said. “And then, of course, this does have broader implications for other families who want to homeschool in Germany and other families who want to make decisions that they believe are in the best interests of their children, which they have the right to do … protected in line with their rights under the European Convention, which we believe Germany is acting in violation of.”

To other families that wish to homeschool but cannot due to government pressures, Dirk Wunderlich said: “Simply start. Get in touch with the authorities and tell them what you want to do, and do not get intimidated by the difficulties that will come along the way,” because they will come. It is knowing how to tackle the difficulties and setbacks that has allowed the Wunderlich family to keep on fighting. 

“We know that God is with us and He helps us,” Dirk said. “He is our hope.” 

Header Image: ADF International

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