MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — Home-schooling families around the country celebrated earlier this month when a German home-school family on the verge of deportation received a last-minute reprieve to stay in this country.
But the case has sent disturbing signals to American home-schoolers about their own government’s willingness to stand up for the rights of parents who choose to teach their children at home.
The story of Uwe and Hannelore Romeike and their children captured the attention of U.S. home-schoolers in 2008, when the family arrived in America seeking asylum from the German government’s requirement that children be educated in established schools.
According to laws that were enacted under Adolf Hitler in 1938, German children between the ages of 6 and 18, and in some cases those as young as 5, must attend a school, whether public or private. If they do not, their parents face fines, possible imprisonment and even losing custody of their children.
Before coming to the United States, the Romeikes had been fined thousands of dollars, and authorities were threatening to put a lien on their home for payment.
The couple had begun to home school in 2006, after observing that the public school their children attended seemed hostile to their Christian faith and values. They were also concerned about the noise level at the school and the behavior of the other students, in addition to teachings that seemed to encourage rebelliousness on the part of children toward their parents.
Based on conversations with other home-schooling families in Germany, they expected that they might encounter some opposition. But when police arrived one morning to take their children to school, they knew they would have to take more drastic action and seek asylum in the United States.
Seeking Safe Harbor
Working with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which had been tracking the problems of German home-schoolers, the Romeikes and their five children came to the United States in August 2008 and settled in Morristown, Tenn. On Jan. 26, 2010, they were granted political asylum by an immigration judge in Tennessee who found that their basic human rights and religious faith had been violated by Germany’s national policy of home-schooling suppression.
However, two years later, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals overturned the decision, after the Obama administration challenged it on grounds that home schooling is not a fundamental right. As the case made its way up the chain, the U.S. government argued that the German government was prosecuting, not persecuting, the Romeikes and was not motivated by any bias.
When a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the immigration appeals-board decision in 2013, the HSLDA sought a rehearing, and, after that was denied, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
On March 3, the high court declined to hear the Romeikes’ appeal, and it appeared the family was headed for deportation, unless HSLDA could seek another remedy in the form of legislation permitting the family to stay. The family’s prospects for staying in the United States, and continuing to educate their children at home, seemed bleak.
U.S. Intervenes — but Tepidly
But a solution presented itself in the nick of time — and from an unlikely source.
On March 4, a supervisor from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that the Romeikes had been granted “indefinite deterred status,” allowing them to remain in the country.
Mike Donnelly, staff attorney and director of international relations for HSLDA, said he thinks it was no coincidence that the Department of Homeland Security stepped in after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
“When you look at the timing, it appears this is something that was planned, and the government had already decided [what] it would do, but they wanted it to go through the court system and give the Supreme Court a chance to make a decision,” said Donnelly.
Ultimately, he said, the U.S. government got what it wanted. “Clearly, they didn’t want to grant precedent that this could be a legitimate asylum case.” Donnelly believes the administration took the position it did largely out of concerns related to diplomacy and international relations.
Nonetheless, the administration’s opposition remains troubling, he said, because it is not as if thousands of people seeking to leave Germany would have sought asylum here had the Romeikes received a favorable ruling.
“What they did was appropriate and discretionary and smart politically,” Donnelly said, “but why couldn’t our government extend asylum to a family that has been persecuted and has a fear of being persecuted?”
“Our country is a country that should lead in the area of human rights, and this is one area where we could have exercised some leadership — and we didn’t.”
Because the Romeikes, who now have seven children, were not granted asylum, their status is revocable and discretionary, and therefore uncertain, Donnelly said, although he added he has no reason to believe it would be revoked.
It also does not provide them with a path to U.S. citizenship, even though they came here legally. “They’re here on the grace of the government’s decision, and that’s it.”
Government’s Attitude ‘Chilling’
Although the Romeike outcome involved a foreign law and thus should not pose any immediate threat to American home-schoolers, Donnelly said parents who educate their children at home in this country need to stay informed and be prepared to defend their freedoms.
“When you have an administration that is opposing granting this home-schooling family who was fearful of being persecuted in Germany asylum, that’s troubling. What does that tell you about that administration?”
Given home schooling is a state-law issue, and home education is legal in all 50 states, Donnelly said he thinks there is little the federal government can do to home-schoolers.
Nonetheless, Benjamin Bull, chief counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group that has worked with HSLDA in defending German home-schooling families and filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the Romeike case, said he believes U.S. home-schoolers clearly have cause to be uneasy about the current administration regarding home education.
“The Obama administration is in the clutches of the public-school teachers’ unions, and two things [the unions] hate the most are charter schools and home schools, because they threaten their monopoly and call them out for failing to do their job, which is to educate children,” Bull said.
Ken Clark, vice president and general counsel of Seton Home Study School, a Catholic home-schooling apostolate, said home-schoolers in this country remain concerned that the federal government took a position in the Romeike case that home-schooling is not a fundamental right.
“We have a history of court cases … going back almost 100 years that parents have the right to determine where their children be educated, as long as they receive a reasonably good education,” said Clark. “It’s sort of chilling that the government is not saying that’s the case.”
Parents Are Primary Educators
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that parents are the principal and first educators of their children (1653) and that their right and duty to educate them are primordial and inalienable (2221). Clark said this means parents have the right to choose the form of education their children will receive, whether that is in a school or at home.
Although the Romeikes are not Catholic, they are Christian, and HSLDA’s Donnelly said the family similarly believes that parents have the right to form their children according to their own worldview, not the government’s.
“[The Romeikes] would absolutely concur that children are a gift from God, and parents are the first ones responsible [for their education] — and that they have a right that needs to be respected and protected by government when it comes to education.”
In a video on the HSLDA website, Uwe Romeike said that there is religious freedom in Germany but that it is limited, in that it ends with the education of children. “The government,” he said, “wants the right to impose what they think [children] should learn.”
HSLDA estimates there are about 400 home-school families in Germany and that almost all are operating underground or are in court.
Bull of Alliance Defending Freedom said, “Children have been removed from homes, parents have gone to jail, paid fines, gone into hiding and fled Germany. It really is quite a scandal —and a scandal that has not received a lot of public or international attention, but it should.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.