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January 6, 2015

Homeschooling Family Appeals to Supreme Court

Mike Donnelly is HSLDA’s director for global outreach. He and his wife homeschool their children. Read more >>

Home School Legal Defense Association is helping Swedish parents who want their children to receive education outside of school, which has so far been denied by officials and courts. The family has appealed to the Swedish Supreme Court, arguing their human rights have been violated by local officials who denied their application to homeschool.

Ellinor and Daniel Petersen, a Swedish-American couple, cite both Swedish and international human rights law to support their argument that they have a right to choose the education that best meets their children’s needs—including the right to homeschool. They say that it is Sweden’s duty to allow them to educate their elementary-age daughter according to their convictions—at home.

A Step Backward

Homeschooling is relatively uncommon in Sweden but had been increasing until a law change in 2010. These new restrictions took effect just one year after 7-year-old Dominic Johansson was taken from his family after they had boarded an international flight to emigrate to India, Dominic’s mother’s homeland. The parents have not seen their son in over three years. During that time permanent guardianship of Dominic was transferred to the state.

HSLDA, along with the Alliance Defending Freedom and a Swedish human rights attorney, have appealed the Dominic Johansson case to the European Court of Human Rights.

As for Swedish education law, it now allows homeschooling only under “extraordinary circumstances.” Just what constitutes appropriate circumstances remains to be seen, as Swedish authorities have refused to approve any homeschool program since the 2010 legal revision.

In 2012 an orthodox Jewish family attempting to homeschool won a case at the appeals court level, but only weeks later this decision was challenged and overturned by the Swedish Supreme Court.

The Namdar family requested permission to homeschool, saying that their religious faith provided the “extraordinary circumstances” required by Swedish school law. The high court said that although the Namdar family had demonstrated that their plan met the first two requirements of the school law their religious faith could not provide “extraordinary circumstances” because Swedish law requires all schools to make it possible for children of all faiths to participate.

Donate to the Homeschool Freedom Fund.

Rights at Risk

Critics of the new law say that it violates rights by forcing children to accept teaching in the public education system or in the highly government-regulated private education system.

They point to a commentary included in the new law that states:

“For the current school regulations it is set forth clearly that the teaching in school shall be comprehensive and objective and thereby designed so that all students can participate, regardless of the religious or philosophical convictions of the student and the student’s guardians. Against this background, it is the Government’s view that today there is no need for a decision in the Education Act that allows for homeschooling on account of the religious or philosophical convictions of the family.”

In their pro se appeal, the Petersens argue that the court’s application of this narrow portion of legislative history conflicts with the larger intent and purpose of Swedish school law, as well as Sweden’s international human rights obligations.

The family applied to local authorities as required by law at the beginning of the school year but were told they could not homeschool because there were no extraordinary circumstances. The family has countered by insisting that Swedish courts have ignored important human rights treaties. Daniel Petersen says that Sweden has an obligation to uphold the European Convention of Human Rights which parliament made part of Swedish law in 1995.

Ignoring Obligations

“It is commendable that Sweden strives for ‘comprehensive and objective’ education in school,” Petersen said, “but for the Swedish courts to use this claim as grounds for the denial of a fundamental human right is untenable and violates Sweden’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights and other human rights norms that expressly protect the parents prior right to choose their children’s education according to their own convictions. Human rights cannot be arbitrarily taken away, neither can the state decide when to ‘allow’ such rights to be exercised; they are fundamental and inalienable for all human beings. If Sweden wants to live up to the title ‘champion of human rights,’ then it’s time for the authorities to loosen their grip and let Sweden’s parents take back what is rightfully ours.”

Ellinor Petersen says that her daughter deserves an individualized education and that the Swedish school law expressly states this as a goal for the school.

“My daughter is both American and Swedish,” she explained. “She needs to be brought up in a bilingual environment and also learn about the world with two cultural perspectives. This is difficult to achieve in a Swedish school. We also wish to empower our daughter to be actively engaged in directing her learning. The Swedish school law has a vision for students being able to receive individualized instruction, to reach as far as they are able—and that the students have influence over their education. We completely agree. In our case, this is best met with education outside of school.”

An Exile’s Hope

Jonas Himmelstrand is the president-in-exile of ROHUS, the National Association for Swedish Homeschoolers. He criticized the court’s ruling in the Namdar case and hopes that the Petersen case might bring about different results, results that might allow some homeschoolers currently living in exile to move back to Sweden.

“The 2010 school law was intended to effectively ban home education for any philosophical or religious reason, and that is what has happened,” said Himmelstrand. “Most homeschooling families I know have left Sweden rather than face the penalties. My family left Sweden in 2012 on recommendation of the local Child Protective Services who explicitly told me that we were not safe to continue homeschooling in Sweden. Also we were fined over $15,000 for homeschooling our daughter the 2010-2011 school year. Fortunately the ROHUS helped us, otherwise our home might have been taken.”

He continued: “Saying that religious or philosophical convictions are not reasons enough for permission to home educate runs totally counter to a number of human rights conventions including the European Convention—a Swedish law. The legislative history of the new law says that homeschooling isn’t needed because schools are supposed to be objective and comprehensive—but what if people disagree with the values taught by the Swedish national curriculum? And what if they just believe that homeschooling is a better way for their children? That is the whole point of respecting parental convictions in education—so that children can be taught in accordance with the wishes of their parents—who know them best. I hope that this new case inspires the court to more carefully consider our school law.”

“The whole point of respecting parental convictions in education [is] so that children can be taught in accordance with the wishes of their parents—who know them best.”

HSLDA Director for Global Outreach Michael Donnelly has been working with families in both Sweden and Germany and provided assistance to the Petersens in developing their appeal.

“Sweden presents an extraordinarily difficult environment for homeschooling families—I don’t know of any who still remain there,” said Donnelly. “Tragically, Swedish courts allow Swedish officials to get away with arbitrary decisions like this—mostly, I think, because homeschoolers are such a small minority with little political influence. That doesn’t change the fact Swedish authorities are clearly violating fundamental human rights by denying parents the right to homeschool. Swedish education authorities have an appalling vision of a society where they seem to think that any education outside of the schools is ‘unnecessary.’ Such a mindset reveals a troubling hostility to the rights of parents and children to receive education outside of publicly approved schools.

You Can Help

HSLDA stands with our member family and commends them for their commitment to their daughter and freedom to take their case to the Swedish Supreme Court. HSLDA’s work on behalf of families like the Petersens, Wunderlichs and Romeikes shows that hostility towards home education still exists.

American families enjoy relative freedom to homeschool, but these cases and other situations in our own country show how fragile that freedom can be. Homeschoolers need to stand together and fight against this kind of oppression. Will you join HSLDA in the fight? We need your help to take this fight to the highest court and to legislatures. Your membership with HSLDA and your generous contributions to the homeschool freedom fund help us fight these battles.

It is extraordinarily difficult and expensive for individual families and even for a relatively small organization like HSLDA to fight against the government machinery of an entire country. Please support the Petersens by joining HSLDA and making a donation to the Homeschool Freedom Fund. The Homeschool Freedom Fund exists to give the homeschool movement the resources it needs to expand freedom and defend persecuted families. Click here to donate to the Homeschool Freedom Fund.