Religion & Liberty Online

Parents’ inalienable rights over their children’s education and religious instruction

As children in the U.S. return to school, their European contemporaries have or soon will join them. However, they do so in a context that recognizes fewer of the traditional rights that society has accorded parents over the education of their children, especially whether they are taught to uphold or disdain their family’s moral and religious views.

Grégor Puppinck, Ph.D., the director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), addressed the rights that parents rightfully exercise over their children’s education during a conference at the European Court of Human Rights. In his address – which is reprinted today at Religion & Liberty Transatlantic – he told a distinguished audience that it has not always been this way.

European society, and Western culture in general, upheld a spontaneously ordered society built upon the individual person and the family unit, and it affirmed the principle of subsidiarity. These societies left education to parents, perhaps drawing upon Biblical injunctions (see, as but two examples, Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and Deut. 11:18-19), certainly drawing upon a long and unbroken tradition of both religious and philosophical origin that holds conscience inviolate. As a consequence, the intrusion of the government into such realms had always been necessarily limited.

Puppinck traces Western history through Erasmus, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, and Kant to modern human rights statements, written in reaction to Nazi and Communist regimes that used the educational system to indoctrinate innocent minds in totalitarianism:

The preparatory works of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and of its First Protocol clearly show that the first aim of their authors was less to proclaim a right to education than to guarantee the prior right of parents against the State. The rights of parents are called “natural,” “elementary,” “fundamental,” “innate,” or “priority” rights. This right, which was initially considered to be the third paragraph of Article 12 of the Convention, was not titled the “right to education,” but the “prior right of parents to choose the kind of education to be given to their children.” It was one of the “family liberties,” alongside “the right to marry and to found a family” and the right to “freedom from arbitrary interference with the family.” As numerous drafters of the convention underlined, it was aimed at protecting families “against the danger of nationalization, absorption, monopolization, requisitioning of young people by the State.”

Yet European governments have steadily encroached upon this right. This January, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government’s goal of “enabling a successful social integration … takes precedence over the wish of the parents” to exercise their religious mores.

The decision, Puppinck writes, amounts to the State asserting that it is “protecting the children from their parents, because they are foreigners.”

Previous decisions had stamped out some parents’ right to homeschool their children, he noted. In his sweeping review of the rights parents wield over their children’s educational and religious instruction, he quotes a postwar German politician whose words ring prophetic in our own day:

If we wish strenuously to oppose everything that smacks of collectivism … we must foster and increase individual responsibility. Furthermore, one of the most urgent tasks of this assembly is to contend against totalitarianism. I shall venture to say that, though totalitarianism obviously exists under dictatorial governments, it may also develop in democracies. We should offer the strongest possible opposition to any such development.

For Americans, observing the unrelenting hostility that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has endured for advocating greater school choice implies that further encroachments by the State upon parental liberties may not be a remote concern.

You can read his informative speech here.

(Photo credit: Public domain. CC0.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout,, Issues & Insights, The Conservative,, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are and His views are his own.