Homeschool activists are raising alarm about a controversy in Germany involving church, state and school they fear could have long-term repercussions affecting parents’ rights to educate their children in the United States.
In September the European Court of Human Rights denied an appeal of a fundamentalist Christian family who sued the German government for the right to educate their children at home.
They are among seven Baptist families in the northwest state of Westphalia boycotting public schools they view as humanistic and godless.
In January a court in Westphalia sentenced a mother to six days in jail, followed by six days for the father, because they would not pay a fine for refusing to let their children attend a Christmas play based on the 1812 Grimm’s fairy tale “King Thrushbeard,” which they considered to be blasphemous.
Another family, in the case decided by the European court, said school teaching in Paderborn conflicted with their religious beliefs, such as promoting superstitions like witches and dwarves in fairy tales and in sex education.
The European court upheld German laws requiring compulsory education and agreed with lower courts that requiring children to attend school did not violate the parents’ rights to privacy or religious freedom.
Countries including the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Norway allow homeschooling. Others, like Germany, provide for compulsory attendance in public or private schools that are regulated by the state to ensure they meet minimum standards.
As a religious minority, the Baptist families say there isn’t a private school available that shares their values. A private “Philadelphia school” established in Siegen, Germany, to assist homeschool families isn’t recognized by the government.
Germany recognizes special protection for the family, but, the court said, that doesn’t override the state’s obligation to provide for education. The law says that “no person shall be denied the right to education,” while requiring the state to “respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical conviction.”
An appeals court said that did not mean German parents could obtain exemption from compulsory school attendance because they disagree with a particular part of the syllabus, even if their objection is motivated by religion.
The courts further said even if children were adequately educated at home, the state would not meet its obligation to educate if children had no contact with other children.
Germany’s high court ruled that education includes not only the “acquisition of knowledge, but also the education of responsible citizens who participate in a democratic and pluralistic society.”
“The acquisition of social competence in dealing with other persons who have different views of the majority could only be trained by regular contact with society,” the court ruled. It said the state also has an interest in the “integration of minorities” in order to “avoid the emergence of parallel societies based on separate philosophical convictions.”
The court said “the exercise and practicing of tolerance” is an important goal of primary schools, and that requiring attendance was reasonable interference with parents’ rights, because they still could provide religious or other education themselves after school and on weekends.
Beyond parental rights, the courts noted that the parents also filed suit on behalf of their children. Because of their young age, the rulings held, the children were “unable to foresee the consequences of their parents’ decision for home education” and therefore it would be difficult for them to make an “autonomous decision” exercising their right to an education.
About 400 families out of Germany’s 80 million inhabitants homeschool. School Instruction at Home, a German legal-defense organization started in 2000 with help by the Home School Legal Defense Association, said about 40 homeschool families currently are in court proceedings in Germany, facing either possible fines or jail.
Observers say it isn’t surprising that Baptists are involved. Many formerly belonged to German-speaking minorities in southern Russia and Kazakhstan and emigrated to Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. Baptists were among the most persecuted peoples in the Soviet Union, and therefore many bring a natural mistrust of government with them.
The German mentality, meanwhile, despite hard lessons learned under the Nazis, still tends to view the state as a parent or guardian over the individual. The Evangelical Church in Germany is generally unsupportive of the homeschoolers, saying they want to “isolate themselves from the world and the traditional churches.”
Many in the West view it as an assault on individual and parental rights. The decision prompted outrage among America’s homeschooling community.
The Home School Legal Defense Association called for letters of protest to be sent to the German Embassy.
The Alliance Defense Fund warned it could influence liberal-leaning U.S. judges to rely on international law in addition to U.S. law for legal precedent to deny homeschool rights in America.
Baptist Press termed it “persecution.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., called the ruling “an encroachment on parental rights.”
“The decision by this European court really lays bare, it makes absolutely naked the agenda behind so many people who insist that all children must be educated in the public schools,” he said on Tuesday’s “Albert Mohler Radio Program.”
“It’s not about reading and writing and arithmetic,” Mohler said. “It’s about social formation and worldview, and it’s about making the kinds of citizens that the elites want citizens to be.”
“I have a vested interest in this myself,” Mohler said, “as the parent of two kids who are in a combination of being homeschooled and being in a Christian consortium school.”
Mohler, an early proponent of a movement in the Southern Baptist Convention toward developing an “exit strategy” from public schools, repeated Tuesday that doesn’t necessarily mean all parents everywhere should immediately withdraw from public schools.
“Every Christian parent must be a homeschooler,” Mohler said. “That doesn’t mean you have to have a formal homeschool and take no option in another kind of private or public school in partnership. It is to say that you have to teach your children at home. That is a biblical mandate. Just look it up: Deuteronomy Chapter 6.
“It is the parent’s responsibility to teach. And we may have other partners in the course of our children’s education, but the bottom line is we’re responsible for what they believe; we’re responsible for what they know; and we’re certainly responsible for the formation of their hearts.”
“Christian parents must instill Christian knowledge, biblical knowledge and Christian values in the hearts of their children, because that is our non-negotiable, non-delegate-able responsibility,” Mohler said. “We’re the ones who will give an answer before God for the education of our children. They’re not going to call in the school superintendent at that point.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.