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By Alex Newman
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Citing the rights of religious freedom and home education, a Swedish appeals court ruled unanimously that homeschooling parents in Gothenburg are allowed to educate their children at home in line with their faith.
It was a small victory for just one family amid an ongoing government campaign to quash homeschooling in Sweden. Still, analysts told WND it has the potential to become a major turning point in the battle.
Local officials had sought to violate the Namdar family’s internationally recognized rights to home education and religious liberty. Last year, the municipal government slapped massive fines on the parents, who serve as Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch representatives to Gothenburg, and demanded that the children be enrolled in school.
However, authorities were rebuked by the court, which found that the children were receiving a “very satisfactory alternative” to the Swedish government’s education.
“One part of this decision is that this family is in a very special situation with regards to their religious freedom,” Judge Per Olof Dahlin, one of three judges who ruled on the case, told WND in a phone interview.
“There is a risk of harassment (for the children), and we considered that they earlier had education at home and online (for many years),” the judge added, pointing out that the family’s many children were doing extremely well in the world, with some going on to get advanced degrees. “If you consider all these things together it qualifies as exceptional circumstances under the law.”
According to homeschooling advocates and human rights experts, the ruling strikes at the heart of a new education law passed in mid-2010 purporting to ban homeschooling for religious and philosophical reasons in Sweden.
Under the recent reforms, home education would only be allowed in “exceptional circumstances” – in practice, homeschoolers said that meant almost never.
The law was also aimed at forcing all schools, even nominally private ones, to teach the government’s deeply controversial curriculum.
In the Namdar case, however, the court ruled that the education reforms could not stand in contravention to Sweden’s obligation to protect the rights of citizens.
“For us, we’re tremendously happy – thank God, thank God – that the judge had the sensitivity and intuition to understand,” mother Leah Namdar told WND.
“The bedrock of a healthy society is belief in God, and one of the challenges in Sweden in general is the sense of many, many people in the country living without belief in God,” she said, adding that the ruling reflected respect for people’s religious needs.
“This is a giant step toward a more tolerant and multicultural society.”
Analysts, officials and homeschooling advocates contacted by WND were still reviewing the latest court ruling on Friday to determine the implications.
Initial reactions varied, with some saying it was a key victory that could pave the way toward restoring protections for human rights in Sweden on educational and religious matters.
Despite the apparent success, however, not all homeschooling advocates were ready to celebrate just yet.
“The Namdar family’s victory over the Gothenburg kommun at a Swedish appeals court shows that at least one Swedish court understands the important of protecting the right of parents to choose how their children are educated – an international human right that has been ignored and trampled in Sweden in recent years,” said International Affairs Director and staff attorney Michael Donnelly of the Home School Legal Defense Association, the HSLDA.
“As great as the Namdars’ victory is, however, it does not end the persecution endured by many other families in Sweden,” he told WND, pointing to Domenic Johansson, who was seized from his parents by Swedish authorities in 2009 over homeschooling in what has become an international story.
Donnelly also cited numerous families who have fled the persecution and are now living as political exiles in other countries. Among those forced to flee was Jonas Himmelstrand, the president of the Swedish Homeschooling Association.
“The Swedish Riksdag violated its citizens’ basic human rights in Sweden when it changed its educational law in 2010 to give authorities more power to restrict homeschooling,” Donnelly explained.
“This law change has resulted in a humanitarian tragedy as families have been fined and forced to flee their country,” he added. “Parents should not be denied the right to homeschool.”
The Gothenburg ruling only applies to the specific case, though other persecuted families would be able to cite the decision going forward, legal experts in Sweden told WND.
However, the city still has the option to appeal.
A few activists cautiously suggested that the ruling might even allow exiled Swedish homeschoolers to return to their homeland eventually.
“This is an extremely important decision by a Swedish court, and the first ray of light for the Swedish homeschooling community,” said homeschooling father Christopher Warren, one of the most outspoken critics of the ban despite being among the last individuals in the nation to have official permission to homeschool.
“It will have far-reaching implications for the homeschooling movement both at home and abroad in exile,” he told WND. “We will have to see how this plays out, of course, over the coming months.”
Despite the recent ban on homeschooling, almost no Swedish homeschoolers have been enrolled in school. Some fled to other countries in pursuit of educational freedom, and a few families continue to educate at home in defiance of the new law.
Meanwhile, Sweden has come under fierce international criticism for the draconian measures, which experts say contradicts human rights treaties to which the nation is a party. The court even cited the widespread international publicity surrounding the issue during the Namdar case.
So far, however, the national government has refused to back down.
That has not deterred dedicated homeschooling advocates, however.
“The number of Swedes going into exile will continue to grow, and the international image of Sweden as a liberal country will be ever more shaken in its roots,” Himmelstrand, the Swedish Homeschooling Association chief, told WND earlier this year as homeschoolers staged a 120-mile “march to freedom” out of Sweden.
“And in the end, Swedish home education will most certainly outlive the present Swedish policies on home education,” he added.
Himmelstrand was still reviewing the latest decision and expressed hope that “this could be a flicker of a turning point,” he told WND in an email.
The Swedish Ministry of Education and Gothenburg officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.