German homeschoolers

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 15th of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, homeschoolers in Germany lose a significant court case.

Petra and Dirk Wunderlich have been fighting since 2005 for their right to educate their four children at home. Homeschooling’s been illegal in Germany for a hundred years, although quite a few seem to be getting around the ban.

But on Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the Wunderlichs cannot educate their children at home. And the judges said denying them that ability is not a breach of their human rights.

REICHARD: The Wunderlich family is considering their next steps now. On the line from Vienna, Austria, is their attorney, Robert Clarke. He’s with ADF International. Good morning, Robert.

ROBERT CLARKE, GUEST: Hi. You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

REICHARD: First, tell us what the latest court ruling actually said.

CLARKE: Yeah, absolutely. This is a case, as you say, that’s been rumbling on for years and years. And, really, the flashpoint for it was in 2013 when 33 police officers and 7 social workers surrounded the family home of this family—4 kids, in Germany—and threatened to use a battering ram if the children didn’t come out to be taken into care. The children did eventually come out, but only after they were carried out by police officers. They didn’t want to leave, and yet they were taken into state care for about 3 weeks.

Since that incident with this application now up to the European Court of Human Rights. And so they were hopeful. And yet, unfortunately, on Thursday we saw a decision from the European Court of Human Rights which doesn’t vindicate their rights. In fact, it upholds the criminal prohibition in Germany on homeschooling. And perhaps even more frustrating for this family, it says that what happened to them wasn’t—and these were the quotes—”wasn’t exceptional or harsh.”

REICHARD: What part of that do you argue is wrong and based on what?

CLARKE: Well, I think there are a couple of parts in the judgment that are troubling. One is that the court accepts the German argument throughout, that homeschooling has to be banned because it will create parallel societies. Now, the first problem with that, of course, is it’s up to the German authorities to prove that that’s the case. If they want to prohibit, if they want to restrict this family’s freedoms and, in fact, their rights under international law to raise their own children, then they have to show that they have very good reason for doing so. And yet they don’t have a good reason. They don’t show why it’s going to create parallel societies. They incur a lot of fear right there, these are a lot of suppositions. But it’s very, very difficult to counteract the even the likes, when we look at the U.S. and we see some 2 million or so children homeschooled and we don’t see these problems. And you see countries in Europe, almost every other country in Europe allows homeschooling either highly regulated or, in some countries, very lightly regulated. So Germany really stands alone.

And then the second part that’s really troubling is Germany says that it’s necessary for these kids to go to school, to be able to learn, and the words they use are “tolerance,” “in order to promote a pluralistic society, “in order to learn assertiveness.” And one of the arguments that the German government made, and this is kind of difficult to believe, is they need to go to school to learn how to stand up against majority views, how to hold fast to their convictions against majority views. And you’re laughing. And with good cause. But it has tragic context. Look at the message that this judgment sends. It’s not that in fact the government is allowed to be utterly intolerant, that the society is going to become less pluralistic, and if you stand fast to your convictions against majority held views, then your house is going to get surrounded by police officers and your children are going to get taken away.

REICHARD: Why do families like the Wunderlich’s homeschool? Is it mostly for religious reasons?

CLARKE: No, there are so many different reasons. I mean, I’ve seen some of the German coverage that I’ve seen on this and it’s “Well, the Wunderlichs are fundamentalist Christians.” They, of course, disagree with that. They say, yeah, we’re Christians, but I’m not fundamentalist. And because they’ve made this unusual choice, of course, that’s about a convenient description that’s perhaps used for them. There are many reasons that people homeschool and even if you asked the Wunderlichs, I mean, they would say it’s a combination of things. It’s not easy to say, oh, it’s because we’re Christians. It’s more complicated than that, it’s got to do with all sorts of things.

REICHARD: How hopeful are you that this family will ultimately prevail? What’s the next step?

CLARKE: Well, we believe they have the law on their side. This one decision from a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, which is a decision of 7 judges. And so there is the possibility for them to appeal the judgment to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, and that means it would be reviewed by 17 judges, so a much wider court. That’s 17 judges from 17 different countries in Europe. And so Grand Chamber doesn’t take many cases, but it does take cases that are exceptionally interesting for different reasons, and we hope because of the scale of the violation, because of the fact that this affects this family, there’s also others in Germany and probably many more beside who would choose to homeschool or home educate in some way, but for the fact of this law existing. We hope that the Grand Chamber takes it up.

REICHARD: Robert Clarke is the Wunderlich family’s lead attorney with ADF International. Thank you for talking with us today.

CLARKE: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

(Photo/ADF International) The Wunderlich family

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