One year after an appeals court denied their request for asylum in the U.S., a German homeschooling family still maintains that they faced religious persecution in their homeland and should have been protected under American law.
In May 2013, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals that Uwe and Hannelore Romeike were not persecuted in Germany even though they faced fines and the threat of losing custody of their children for failing to attend public school. Asylum laws apply only to those who have a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” and the Romeike family did not make a sufficient case, the judges ruled.
But Uwe Romeike told Morning Star News that German officials seemed to display animosity toward the family’s evangelical Christian faith.
“They didn’t always [exhibit animosity] openly, but they would at least call us bigoted,” Romeike said. “Also, you have to understand that most Germans would consider themselves Christians. That means they wouldn’t necessarily show animosity toward Christianity but rather call us ‘extreme religious’ or fanatic. Most times homeschooling families are portrayed in the media as extreme Christians, fundamentalists, fanatics, alienated from the modern world, even dangerous.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Romeikes’ appeal, making deportation appear likely. But a day later the Obama administration said it would not deport the family and would grant them “indefinite deferred status,” which means they may stay in the U.S. permanently unless they violate the terms of that status.
The Romeike family
The Romeikes live in east Tennessee, where the parents and five oldest of seven children are members of First Baptist Church in Morristown. Uwe serves as a deacon as well as the church pianist.
The Romeikes said they are satisfied with the outcome of their case but wish it could have set a helpful precedent for other persecuted homeschoolers around the world.
Persecuted in Germany
The textbooks used in German public schools conflicted with the family’s Christian values and gave them no choice but to disobey the government’s homeschooling prohibition, they said. The Romeikes believe that threatening to take away their children for living out their faith was tantamount to persecution.
In the textbooks, “children were, for example, taught disrespect toward parents, teachers and adults in general, and witchcraft and devil worship was portrayed favorably,” Romeike said. “The Christian faith was ridiculed.”
In spite of a law in Germany forbidding homeschooling, the Romeikes began homeschooling their children in 2006. After they refused to pay fines for their children’s absences, the school principal met with them and asked what they would do if police enforced the law. The Romeikes dismissed it as an empty threat until police showed up the next month and took three children to school, which was “quite traumatic” for the kids then ages 9, 8 and 6, Romeike said.
When police showed up the next day, four adults and seven minors from the Romeikes’ homeschool support group intervened, and police departed, unwilling to use force, according to court documents. The state continued to fine them – a total of 7,000 euros (roughly $9,000) by the time they left Germany.
The Romeikes did not want to leave Germany – Uwe, a piano teacher, and his father had built a custom home in Bissingen with a music studio on the first floor – but they sensed they had no choice.
“Had we stopped teaching them at home and sent them back to public school, where we knew they would be taught against the Christian faith, we would have violated our conscience,” Uwe Romeike said. “This might not be physical persecution, but it is mental and spiritual persecution against us parents as well as against our children who at all times wanted to be homeschooled.”
They learned what was happening to other families homeschooling for other reasons: a 15-year-old girl was put in a psychiatric clinic and foster home; one couple lost custody; another was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
“We also consider it to be persecution if parents constantly live in fear of losing their children to the state, when they daily have to expect the child protective service to come and take the children and custody away from them,” Romeike said. “Since that happened to several homeschooling families in recent years, this is not an empty threat. Because we couldn’t live with this fear, we fled Germany.”
The family set up home in Tennessee while their asylum application took two years to make its way to immigration Judge Lawrence O. Burman, and on Jan. 26, 2010, he agreed with the Romeikes. In a 28-page ruling, Burman granted them asylum after determining that homeschoolers were a persecuted social group in Germany, that the Romeikes had religious motivation, and that Germany’s persecution of homeschoolers would restrict the exercise of their faith.
Their attorney, Michael P. Donnelly of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), said the ruling hit media on every continent.
“The decision was an extraordinary recognition of the fundamental importance of the right of parents to raise their children according to the dictates of individual conscience,” Donnelly wrote after the ruling. “Judge Burman noted that the rights being denied the Romeikes were ‘basic human rights that no country has a right to violate.’”
The U.S. Government Agency for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, soon filed an appeal arguing that U.S. law recognized the “broad power of the state to prohibit or regulate homeschooling,” and that this along with other considerations should negate asylum. ICE argued that Germany’s treatment of homeschoolers amounted to prosecution, not persecution, that sanctions had been meted out in a “limited number of circumstances” and that the Romeikes had failed to “make any effort to locate an acceptable alternative school.”
Those claims had been argued in the first hearing on the case and were shown to be false, Donnelly said.
Nevertheless, in 2012 the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) overturned the ruling. The BIA argued that religious homeschoolers face no special threats, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year upheld the reversal.
“The BIA/6th Circuit essentially ruled that the Romeikes were prosecuted, not persecuted,” Donnelly told Morning Star News. “BIA also found that homeschoolers in Germany were not a ‘particular social group.’”
In 6th Circuit Appeals Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s opinion for the three-judge panel, he stated that Germany had not singled out the Romeikes or homeschoolers in particular for persecution.
“Congress might have written the immigration laws to grant a safe haven to people living elsewhere in the world who face government strictures that the United States Constitution prohibits. But it did not,” Sutton wrote. “… There is a difference between the persecution of a discrete group and the prosecution of those who violate a generally applicable law.”
In his summary opinion, Sutton noted that the Romeikes were trying to meet the religious persecution criteria not on what had already happened, but on claims that the German government would persecute them if they returned.
Little is known about how or why the Department of Homeland Security opted to indefinitely extend the family’s deferred immigration status, with attorney Donnelly saying only, “DHS said that in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, they were granting indefinite deferred action status to the Romeikes.”
The BIA and 6th Circuit’s rulings that Germany’s homeschooling laws did not constitute religious persecution showed that they disregarded the faith-based and personal conscience concerns, Romeike said.
“This administration’s position unfortunately seems to be the same as Germany’s,” he said. “Homeschooling is considered to be a privilege rather than a fundamental human right.”
He added that he and his wife have tried to do what’s best for their children even if it was not the easiest path.
“We know other families that suffer the same kind of persecution because of homeschooling in Germany as we did – many even more, because they lost custody, possessions or face jail time,” Romeike said. “But the outcome of our case upholds the 6th Circuit Court’s decision, which in essence doesn’t recognize Germany’s treatment of homeschooling families as persecution because one can choose not to homeschool in order to be left in peace. They completely disregard the fact that parents do this because of their faith and can’t just quit and thereby violate their conscience permanently. This is not satisfactory for a country that claims to uphold religious freedom.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Adapted from Morning Star News (www.MorningStarNews.org), a California-based independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians worldwide.)