The next time they appear in court for homeschooling, Dirk and Petra Wunderlich could face four years in prison—each.
“I am sad today,” said Dirk Wunderlich, recounting how on April 28 he lost his most recent case in the German state of Hesse, and also heard dire warnings from the presiding judge.
“We had hoped the judge, who seemed open-minded and friendly, might give us a chance,” Wunderlich added. “But no, he said he could not: The law is the law.”
In their most recent court appearance, Dirk and Petra Wunderlich were fined 450 euros each (about $1,000) for not sending their children to school. Their case was opened in 2012 and was just concluded this week after numerous encounters with legal authorities, including one heartbreaking incident where state officials seized their four children in August 2013.
Although the children were returned after three weeks on the condition that they go to school, Dirk and Petra Wunderlich did not regain legal custody until August 2014. It was at that point that the parents decided to continue homeschooling.
Now, even though he faces a prison sentence if his family stays in Germany, Dirk Wunderlich said they have nowhere else to go.
“We wandered around Europe for years looking for a place where we could live peacefully and raise our children without this pressure,” he said. “But we had to come back here. It isn’t easy to get jobs in other countries always. And besides, this is our home. We are Germans—why should we have to leave our country to do home education?”
Wunderlich said that he plans to appeal the fine, but that there is now another criminal case pending against them.
“With the help of HSLDA and with the prayers of our friends and supporters, we will go forward,” he said. “This is not right, and we must stand up against this injustice. The state cannot be allowed to dictate to parents how children are educated. Homeschooling must be fought for.”
Unfortunately, the Wunderlichs and other homeschoolers have not found much favor in the German courts.
The German Supreme Court has already rejected all appeals by the Wunderlichs. And in November 2014, the court reaffirmed in a separate case that Germany has an equal interest with parents in the raising of children. This followed a series of decisions that said banning home education is constitutional because it helps prevent the development of parallel societies, and that public school attendance can be mandated to help ensure that children learn to live tolerantly with each other.
Furthermore, the German high court also made it clear that to enforce this vision of a tolerant, homogenous society, legal authorities are justified in sentencing recalcitrant homeschoolers to lengthy prison terms.
This legal philosophy frustrates Michael Donnelly, HSLDA’s Director of Global Outreach.
“Four years in prison? For homeschooling? That is outrageous,” Donnelly said. “German courts seem incapable of recognizing what most democratic countries understand—that parents, not the state, should decide how to educate their children. Home education is and ought to be a legal and valid alternative in Germany, just like it is in most European countries. Instead, German courts come down on the side of violating parental rights. It’s a terrible decision.”
But this latest legal setback will not deter HSLDA from fighting for homeschool freedom in Germany and elsewhere, said Michael Farris, HSLDA’s founder and chairman.
“If we don’t fight for our rights everywhere,” Farris said, “then there won’t be any rights anywhere.”
“This ban on homeschooling is a blatant violation of parental rights,” he added. “The whole reason for protecting the parents’ right to direct education was in response to what happened during World War II. It is really disturbing to see German judges acting this way.”
Donnelly said the notion that homeschooling threatens democracy is backwards. “What really threatens democracy,” he said, “is when the German authorities try to stamp out ‘parallel societies.’ In a pluralistic democracy there must be acceptance for families who have different ideas about how to educate their children. Home education has proven its value to the point where a complete ban ought to be an obvious violation of human rights. So no, we don’t plan to stop fighting for these families.”
HSLDA needs the support of its members to carry this cause forward. There are many more families who need help in countries like German and Sweden. HSLDA is hearing from more and more of these families, who have virtually no political or financial power to push back against this coercion by their governments.