A case of a 15-year-old German girl who has been removed from her family and placed in a psychiatric institution has Christians in the United States up in arms.
Christian activists say the case is an assault on religious liberties and the right of a Christian family to home school their daughter. The case has been widely reported in Christian and conservative media in the United States, with some commentators comparing the authorities to Nazis. Activists are being encouraged to pray for the girl and petition German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while one Web site is even calling for a boycott on German goods.
However the German authorities deny that the case is an assault on home schooling and say the decision to remove the girl from her family was motivated by concern for the girl's welfare.
The row centers around the 15-year-old Erlangen resident Melissa B., the oldest of six children. Melissa was taken out of her high school by her parents and educated at home after she was told that she would have to repeat seventh grade following problems with her performance at school.
But when the Youth Welfare Office in Erlangen fielded calls from a number of people -- including from Melissa's former school -- saying they were concerned about the girl, the authorities got involved, according to an official familiar with the case. When the family refused to cooperate, the family court in Erlangen commissioned a psychiatric report on the teenager to determine the veracity of the concerns -- a standard procedure in such cases.
The report, which has since been posted on the Internet, diagnosed Melissa as suffering from "emotional disturbances" and "school phobia" and recommended that she be made a charge of the Youth Welfare Office as her parents were not able to meet her needs. Melissa was removed from her home on Feb. 1, 2007 and placed in a psychiatric clinic for young people in Nuremberg for further testing.
The family court's decision was upheld in a further court decision on Feb. 16 and again this week in a decision by a higher appeals court.
The case is seen by home schooling proponents as an attack by the German authorities on the practice of home schooling. "I think this is the worst case we have ever experienced in the home schooling movement here in Germany," German home schooling activist Joerg Grosselümern told the US-based Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Grosselümern called Melissa a "hostage" and said she had been "abducted" by the authorities.
The family told CBN that they had received letters of support from around the world. "You ask yourself, what have I done wrong that this must happen to me?" the girl's mother Gudrun B. said in an interview with CBN. "I know that God is helping us," she added. "But humanly speaking, we have no help against these people. What can we do against them? You feel very helpless against the officials."
The family's other five children are all in public school and the family say they are not opposed in principle to Melissa returning to school. CBN reports that Melissa is now being held in "a foster home at a secret location" while the court battle continues.
Ultra-conservative American daily Washington Times also got on the bandwagon, publishing an op-ed piece by Michael Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, entitled "The Battle Against Fascist Conformity."
Christian activists are trying to put pressure on the German government to intervene. "We are working with US government officials to bring pressure from the US," Joel Thornton, president of a US-based organization which calls itself the "International Human Rights Group" and claims to campaign for religious liberties, told the American conservative online news site WorldNetDaily. "We are working to set up a meeting with the US ambassador in Berlin so that the ambassador can be informed regarding the situation." The group's Web site adds that they are "working to develop international prayer support for Melissa and her family."
Another activist Web site features an extensive list of German companies and calls for a boycott on German products "until the people of Germany rise up and demand accountability from their government."
However the Erlangen authorities deny that the case is related to the parents' decision to take the girl out of school. "The case has nothing to do with home schooling," Edeltraud Höllerer from the Erlangen Youth Welfare Office told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding she could not discuss details of the case for legal reasons.
Aware of the extensive media coverage the case has received, Erlangen Youth Welfare Office has published a series of press releases to clarify its position. "The Youth Welfare Office has at no time been involved with enforcing the obligation to attend school and would like to publicly set the record straight," the Youth Welfare Office wrote in a press release from Feb. 21. It stressed that the action was to protect the child from danger and that the girl was now old enough that she was no longer obliged to attend school.
The case is the latest in a series in Germany relating to home schooling. A Christian family fled to Austria last year after the father had been jailed for a week for refusing to enroll his children in public school.