Early on the morning of Aug. 29, 2013, thirty-three police officers and seven social workers stormed the home of the Wunderlich family near Darmstadt, Germany. Police threatened to use a battering ram to open the door, before proceeding to enter the family home while pushing aside the father, Dirk, as his four children, aged 7 to 14, were forcibly taken into custody. A police officer prevented Petra, Dirk’s wife, as she tried to kiss one of her daughters in a gesture of comfort. Powerless, the couple watched as their visibly distressed children were escorted out of their lives.
And what crime did the Wunderlichs commit?
They dared to home-school their children — a decision born out of a deeply held desire to raise their children in the Christian faith.
Just last month, on July 5, 2019, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) denied the Wunderlichs’ request to hear further legal argument about the injustices they feel they have suffered at the hands of the German state on account of the parents’ wish to home-school their children.
Effectively this latest ruling brings to an end a 14-year legal battle — since their first child reached school age — between German authorities and the Wunderlichs.
Reacting to this latest setback Dirk Wunderlich said: “We were always convinced that what we were doing is right and [that home schooling] is the only option for our children. In particularly difficult hours we always had a living word from God that made us persevere.”
Supported by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, a Vienna-based legal advocacy group, the family’s appeal to the Grand Chamber followed an earlier ECHR ruling on Jan. 10. In that decision it was decided that the actions taken by German authorities in relation to the Wunderlich family, and particularly the police action that occurred on that August morning in 2013, did not violate the family’s fundamental rights. On that occasion the German state said its actions, including the forced removal of the Wunderlich children from the family home, were necessary so as to “prevent [the] social isolation” of the children and to ensure their integration into society. In its January 2019 ruling the ECHR agreed that the state’s actions were justified.
Following the ECHR decision, Dirk Wunderlich said: “It is a very disheartening day for our family and the many families affected by this in Germany. ... It is upsetting that the European Court of Human Rights has not recognized the injustices we have suffered at the hands of the German authorities.”
After the July 2019 decision by the Grand Chamber, the highest level of the ECHR, the Wunderlichs exhausted their final legal opportunity to appeal the January 2019 ECHR ruling.
“There is no further appeal possible at the European Court of Human Rights after the Grand Chamber refused their application to review the previous judgment of the Fifth Section,” Robert Clarke, director of European advocacy for ADF International and lead counsel for the Wunderlich family, told the Register.
Observers in the United States and elsewhere look on with dismay at the predicament of the Wunderlichs. Speaking to the Register, Michael Donnelly, senior counsel with the U.S. Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), said that the treatment of the Wunderlich family by German authorities and the recent ECHR ruling left him in “shock and disbelief.”
“Every person and family should have the right to live in accordance with their deeply held convictions,” Donnelly said, “and the rights of parents in making decisions about the education of their children is among the most deeply rooted in modern human-rights law.”
Pointing out that “virtually every major human-rights treaty explicitly protects this right,” he added that it is “never acceptable for authorities to use force against families when there is a question of home schooling.”
In the U.S., Donnelly noted, only in rare instances have home-schooling families being subjected to harsh treatment similar to that endured by the Wunderlichs. He confirmed that HSLDA has several civil-rights lawsuits ongoing against various U.S. state authorities for such treatment. So far, he said, the HSLDA has won court judgments exceeding $700,000 when it has been found that government authorities violated the constitutional rights of U.S. home-schoolers.
During these past 14 years the Wunderlichs have been heartened by much widespread international support for the family’s plight. “Throughout the world, Christian communities have been very supportive of our case, especially in the U.S.A., where home schooling has become very widespread,” Dirk Wunderlich told the Register.
The growth of home schooling among U.S. parents, and the recourse in U.S. courts that parents have to defend their right to home school, is taken as part of the country’s educational and legal fabric. In Germany, however, the situation is markedly different. Since 1918, laws have prohibited parents from home-schooling their children. As Clarke explains: “German laws on schooling were introduced under Bismarck and make school attendance compulsory. As such, those who choose to home-school, like the Wunderlich family, [face court] fines and possible removal of their children into state custody.”
Furthermore, in 2014, Germany’s Constitutional Court decreed that restrictions on home schooling were justified. The court said that the government has a compelling interest in preventing the formation of religious or ideological “parallel societies.” The court also argued that requiring children to attend school provides them with the benefit of interacting with other children from different backgrounds.
But Clarke is not convinced by such arguments: “The German government says that it fears the emergence of so-called ‘parallel societies’ and children not being exposed to normal social interactions.” However, he said: “That is simply not supported by the evidence. For example, in the U.S., more than 1.5 million children are home-schooled, and studies show they do at least as well as their peers in school.”
In the Wunderlich case, the German state had argued before the ECHR that its laws against home schooling were necessary so that children could learn values such as tolerance.
“And yet,” Clarke said, in his family’s case, the Germany government demonstrated anything but tolerance. “What has [this court case] taught the Wunderlich children on this subject?”
Matters came to a head when, in 2005, the oldest Wunderlich child reached school age: 6 years old in Germany. His parents did not register him with a school, and so they faced legal sanction. Eventually, in 2008, the Wunderlichs left to live abroad, before deciding to return to Germany in 2012. However, they still did not intend to register their children with the education authorities there.
In January 2013 a court in the Wunderlichs’ home city, Darmstadt, ruled that the Wunderlich children must be removed from their parents. Following that judgment, there was the August dawn raid and forcible removal of the Wunderlich children from the care of their parents.
“Our youngest daughter was only 4 years old when the authorities broke into our home and took the children without warning. She could not stop crying for 11 days,” said Dirk Wunderlich. At the time of the children’s removal, he restated the family position: “We chose to educate our children at home because we believe this to be the best environment for them to learn and thrive.”
ADF International said that the state’s intervention on that occasion left the whole Wunderlich family traumatized. In time the children were returned to their parents. Thereafter, the family, with the aid of ADF International, sought legal protection from further aggression by the German state, through recourse to the ECHR.
Any previous attempts by others to circumvent German law by appeal to the ECHR had proved futile, however. Perhaps this is unsurprising: In 2006, the ECHR upheld the German ban on home schooling.
Nevertheless, at the ECHR in April 2015, ADF International had argued on behalf of the Wunderlich family against the German state’s actions.
Clarke said that the children deserved “the loving care and protection of their parents,” while pointing out how serious it was for the state to interfere with the parent-child bond. “It should only do so where there is a real risk of serious harm,” he said. “Petra and Dirk Wunderlich simply exercised their parental right to raise their children in line with their philosophical and religious convictions — something they thought they could do better in the home environment.”
In arguing his case before the German court, Clarke said that a parent’s right to educate their children “is a fundamental right protected in all of the major human-rights treatises.”
“Germany has signed up to these treaties and yet continues to ignore its obligations with devastating consequences,” Clarke argued.
In January 2019 the ECHR rejected these arguments.
Because the ECHR’s Grand Chamber declines to hear any further legal argument on behalf of the Wunderlich family, Clarke told the Register that ADF International “was exploring new ways of raising the case of the Wunderlich family.” At this stage, however, it is not clear what, if anything, further can be done.
In spite of everything, Dirk and Petra Wunderlich remain optimistic about their family’s future. Dirk told the Register: “We came back to Germany in 2012 and have fought through all the fights since then. Two children have grown up, the third is no longer required to attend school, and the youngest will soon be 14. … I don’t think there will be anything more from the authorities in the future.”
Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.