- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 18, 2010

A small change in Sweden’s schooling law is about to make a big difference for Swedish home-schooling families, potentially causing them to flee to other countries or bring cases to international courts to protect religious and parental rights in the socialist country.

The Swedish Liberal Party pushed a new 1,500-page schooling law through last month one paragraph of which will make home schooling as an expression of religion or philosophy effectively impossible for Swedish families, other than in “exceptional circumstances” such as health issues or distance from a public school. The law also severely restricts religious practice in Sweden’s “confessional” schools.

Sweden’s officials defend the home-school ban, which takes effect next July, saying home schooling is unnecessary since the state provides a “comprehensive and objective” education.

This is exactly the problem, said Christopher Barnekov, director of Scandinavia House in Fort Wayne, Ind., an assistance program for Swedish Lutheran pastors studying in the U.S.

“The thrust of the law was to make schools across Sweden more uniform,” Mr. Barnekov said, adding that the law also requires Sweden’s religious schools to follow the same curriculum as its secular schools and restricts their prayer and chapel services.

Some families are even considering leaving the country, such as Nicklas and Jenny Lantz, who home-school their three sons, Lukas, Beppe and Frode. The whole family helps run a small theater they built in the Swedish countryside near their home; on play nights, they go together and help prepare for shows.

The Lantzes say they are planning a move to the United Kingdom so they can keep home schooling when the new schooling law takes effect July 1.

“For us, it feels like less of a burden to move there, than to stay and maybe have to go to court for our sake,” Mrs. Lantz said. “But it is a big decision we’re making. We don’t have a lot of friends in U.K., nor do we have any other connections there. But the thought of sending the kids to school only because of some politicians that don’t understand what home schooling really is, is not an alternative for us.”

Unlike in the U.S., Sweden’s home-schoolers do not fit a particular religious profile and are about as secular as the rest of the country but favor an educational style different from what Sweden’s state schools deliver.

The Lantzes said the quality of the schools in their area had little to do with their choice to nurture their kids’ “hunger to learn” at home.

“It is a totally different kind of education, and even if we could send our kids to the absolutely best school in the world, we wouldn’t do it,” she said.

The family decided to home-school when Lukas, now almost 10, was five years old. He had been learning everything from reading to counting on his own from a young age, Mrs. Lantz said in a phone interview, and his parents were delighted by his eagerness.

“We didn’t want him to lose the wonderful freedom in learning that he had, and the ‘hunger to learn’ — a common Swedish saying,” said Mrs. Lantz. “At that time, our second son was about three years old and we saw the same wonderful love of learning within him and we felt strongly that this was something we wanted to preserve and nurture.”

Anna Neuman, press secretary for Education Minister Jan Bjorklund, said home schooling is unnecessary in her country.

“Since all teaching in Swedish schools is both comprehensive and objective, there is no need for home schooling with reference to religious or philosophical reasons, and this is why this is not an option in the new Education Act,” she said.

She also added that “all schools follow the same curricula,” according to the longtime “fundamental principle in Swedish schools” of “comprehensive and objective teaching.”

The new law also has the potential to sharply limit the freedom of confessional schools, which will be required to follow the same curriculum as public schools and make optional all religious activities, including prayer and church services.

Sweden has general elections in September, which may affect how strictly the law is implemented. Despite its name, the Liberal Party is part of a coalition government that leans to the right in the context of Swedish politics.

However, more left-wing groups, such as the Social Democratic and Left parties, may win in September. “If those parties regain power, you can expect to take those powers a lot further,” Mr. Barnekov said.

A more left-leaning government, he said, likely would enforce adherence to the government’s curriculum much more strictly and reduce the extent to which religion could be implemented into the life of the confessional schools.

“The law is potentially very dangerous for them; it remains to be seen how it will be applied,” he said.

Confessional schools represent a range of denominations; many are associated with the official state Church of Sweden, a historically Lutheran body to which three-quarters of Sweden’s population belongs, although only an estimated 1 percent of its members actually attend church. Others represent non-established Lutheran churches, evangelical and nondenominational groups, and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Lantzes said that they have always had a good relationship with the local authorities, who currently grant permission to home-school on a case-by-case basis, though they will have much less leeway and legal grounds to approve home schooling when the law takes effect on July 1.

But not every home-schooling family in Sweden has been so lucky even up to this point. One family who spoke to The Washington Times but asked to remain anonymous said they have been fighting opposition from local authorities for the past five years, and “This year, the hell started.”

Though the school office acknowledges that the two boys are extremely well-educated and well-socialized, the local authorities have been increasingly insistent that they attend public school, citing concern over curriculum and socialization.

When their application to home-school was denied, each parent was fined 10,000 kroner, or about $1,250. Their case is currently in court, and the mother said as hard as home schooling is now, the new law will likely force them to move to a neighboring country where home schooling is easier.

European home-schooling refugees already have won one asylum case in the U.S., claiming that Germany’s effective ban constituted religious persecution.

Jonas Himmelstrand, president of the Swedish home-schooling organization Rohus, said his family is currently fighting in court for the right to home-school their own children. He said that Sweden’s government is not based on a constitution and inalienable rights, but has always been quite socialist.

The Swedish government, he said, fears anything they perceive as “different,” and they particularly fear parents teaching their kids something different than public schools.

“There’s not even a tradition of traditional human rights. There is a tradition of the state having rights,” said Mr. Himmelstrand.

Sweden’s laws, according to Mike Donnelly, a lawyer with the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, are even contrary to the European Convention, which states that families have the right to school within their own religious and philosophical convictions.

Mr. Donnelly said the Swedish government, which claims a child’s right to education, is suppressing individual rights, and HSLDA will aid individual families until they are granted the right to school their children.

But Mr. Himmelstrand said many families will stay and fight in court, whether in Sweden or in European Union venues, citing the convention’s guarantee of parental rights.

“They feel they have found something very good, and they will not easily give up,” he said.

• Michal Elseth can be reached at melseth@washingtontimes.com.

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