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Dirk and Petra Wunderlich
The Wunderlich children enjoy an evening in their backyard.

German family appeals right to homeschool to Europe’s high court

A German family punished for homeschooling their children has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Dirk and Petra Wunderlich submitted a final appeal last week asking the ECHR to protect their right to homeschool their four children. Home education has been banned in Germany since 1918 and carries criminal penalties.

In August 2013, a police squad used a battering ram to break into the Wunderlich home as the family started their first day of homeschool classes for the year. A group of more than 20 police officers and social workers forcefully took the four Wunderlich children, ages 7 to 14, out of the home without letting their parents say goodbye. The parents’ only offense was homeschooling.

Dirk and Petra afterwards asked authorities if they could leave Germany for France, where homeschooling is allowed, but were denied. When officials returned their children, they required them to attend a government-approved school. The family is now homeschooling again without backlash but remains in legal uncertainty.

“Children deserve the loving care and protection of their parents. It is a serious thing for a country to interfere with the parent-child bond, so it should only do so where there is a real risk of serious harm,” said Robert Clarke, director of European advocacy for ADF International and lead counsel for the family. “Petra and Dirk Wunderlich simply exercised their parental right to raise their children in line with their philosophical and religious convictions—something they believe they can do better in the home environment.”

Clarke noted that Germany was a signatory to major human rights treaties supporting the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children: “Germany has signed on to these treaties and yet continues to ignore its obligations with devastating consequences.”

The ECHR recently agreed to review the family’s case, Wunderlich v. Germany, specifically examining whether German authorities’ actions breached the “right to family life” protected in Article 8 of the European Convention on Family Rights.

The German government submitted replies to the ECHR in late January, claiming the children’s seizure was justified to force them to attend local school so they would learn how to deal with people who think differently. Previous court rulings in Germany have supported the ban on homeschooling, arguing education is a state function and the government has a compelling interest in preventing religious or ideological “parallel societies.”

But homeschooling supporters and some legal experts disagree.

“Children are born to parents, not governments, and Germany’s homeschooling policy is completely out of step with other free democracies that allow home education as part of their free and civil societies,” said Mike Donnelly, director of global outreach for the Home School Legal Defense Association, which is also defending the Wunderlich family. “Human rights experts at the UN and scholars worldwide have found that home education is a natural, fundamental, and protected human right. The court must hold Germany accountable to respect this.”

A decision in favor of the family would have wider implications for the parental rights of 800 million Europeans subject to ECHR rulings. Supporters hope a victory will pressure Germany to align its legislation with the court ruling as well as spark public discourse to trigger change from within. Because the ECHR is a court of last resort, a defeat would likely mean the end of the Wunderlich’s fight for legal homeschooling in Germany.

“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. “We chose to educate our children at home because we believe this to be the best environment for them to learn and thrive.”

The Wunderlichs hope to hear from the ECHR before the end of the year. A decision could come in as soon as a few weeks.

— by Kiley Crossland

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