MARCH 3, 2017
In April 2012, seven-year-old Vivienne Falcone brought a note from her parents to the principal’s office, asking that she be excused from school for one day. Her family planned to attend an annual, three-day religious convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mainz. The school authorities denied the family’s request for Vivienne to be excused from school for the Friday session of the convention. Nevertheless, concern for Vivienne’s spiritual education prompted her parents to take her to the convention despite the denial. Vivienne’s parents appealed to the State Board of Education (Board) concerning the denial by the school authorities. Instead of recognizing the convention as a religious holiday, the Board ordered them to pay an administrative fee.
The Board’s denial had potential negative consequences for Vivienne’s parents because under German law, an unexcused absence from school is considered a violation of the parents’ legal obligation to send their children to school. The offense can be punished with a fine and even imprisonment in extreme cases. From a broader perspective, Vivienne’s parents considered the denial to be an infringement on their religious freedom and their right to raise their child according to their religious beliefs.
Right to Religious Holidays on Trial
Vivienne’s parents, Stefano and Elisa, filed a complaint in an administrative court to contest the actions of the Board. They argued that the daylong religious services provide an opportunity to worship God as a family and to build faith. They stated: “The conventions are an annual highlight and a special occasion in our religious practice.” * The court ruled in favor of the parents, recognizing that the annual regional conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses are religious holidays. The Board appealed, arguing that the conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not religious holidays because they are festive events, not special days that are considered holy, such as Christmas, Easter, or national holidays.
On July 27, 2015, the Higher Administrative Court of Hesse upheld the lower court’s decision. The higher court declared that the definition of a religious holiday depends solely upon the religious association’s own view. The court saw the clear separation between religious affairs and those of the State, stating: “Otherwise the State would infringe upon the autonomy guaranteed in the Basic Law [that is, Constitution of Germany] to churches and religious and ideological associations and upon their independence in their own sphere.” The State is “obligated to maintain ideological and religious neutrality.”
The higher court also referenced the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which explains that the Witnesses consider their conventions to be religious holidays. The court stated that in rejecting the Falcones’ request for their daughter to be excused from school, the Board “misjudged the child’s right to religious freedom . . . as well as the right of parents . . . to train children as to religion and ideology.” The court concluded that the Board’s “opinion runs contrary to the neutrality required of the State.”
“Participation in a simple ceremonial religious event can constitute a special reason to be exempted from school lessons.”—Higher Administrative Court of Hesse
A Well-Rounded Education
Upon receiving the favorable ruling, Vivienne’s parents stated: “As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we value secular education as important to us, and we try to instill in our children a love for learning. We also highly value religious education because it teaches our children to develop a love for spiritual things and to develop a personal relationship with God, which helps them to be loving, considerate, and well-rounded. We are grateful to the legal authorities for their ruling.”
Armin Pikl, attorney for the Falcones, stated: “This ruling recognizes that conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses are sacred events and reaffirms the right of parents to educate their children according to their religious beliefs. Students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses will benefit throughout their school years from this exemption from class to attend these wholesome conventions. I hope that judicial authorities in other countries will consider this favorable ruling when they hear cases involving this issue.”
^ Regional conventions, formerly called district conventions, are annual religious events that Jehovah’s Witnesses hold throughout the world. The three-day religious educational program teaches young and old how to apply Bible principles in their daily lives.