MORRISTOWN, Tenn.—From a distance, the small community of Morristown, Tenn., might remind outsiders of a small hamlet in the German countryside: Quaint houses sit tucked into verdant hillsides, and handfuls of churches dot the landscape.
One noticeable difference: Churches in Morristown often fill up on Sunday mornings. It’s a stark contrast with a city like Berlin, where the area is full of historic church buildings, but as few as 3 percent of the city’s population regularly attends services. (Indeed, officials in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Berlin announced they would cut the number of churches in their region by 70 percent over the next seven years.)
For decades, Germany’s Catholic Church and its official Protestant denomination have lost congregants by the thousands, and the situation is even more tenuous for evangelicals: As little as 1 to 2 percent of the German population identifies as evangelical.
It’s a challenging landscape for the tiny percentage of German evangelicals living in a heavily secularized society wary of evangelical Christians. For some, the spiritually dry climate is stifling.
One example includes Christian parents who want to homeschool their children in a country that requires children to attend state-approved schools. Homeschools don’t qualify.
That dynamic led Uwe and Hannelore Romeike to flee Germany with their five children in 2008. (They’ve since had another daughter and expect a baby in June.) The Christian couple faced increasing fines and the threat of losing custody of their children after they decided to homeschool in 2006.
The family settled here in Morristown, Tenn., where they knew another German family. They soon applied for asylum, arguing that they couldn’t return to Germany because they feared persecution for their religious-based determination to homeschool.
An immigration judge granted the family’s asylum request in 2010, marking the first time a family has won asylum based on homeschooling. But the Obama administration appealed, and the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed the Romeikes’ asylum win. The case is set to continue on April 23 in another hearing at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio.
The Romeikes—represented by the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association—plan to challenge the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) argument that the family’s case doesn’t constitute persecution by the German government. (The court likely won’t render a decision for at least several weeks.)
If they lose, the Romeikes could face deportation. If they win, their case could establish a precedent for other foreign homeschool families to seek asylum in the United States, if their home governments don’t allow homeschooling.
Meanwhile, the family’s saga highlights the challenges confronting evangelical Christians in Germany—both homeschooling families and those who send their children to public schools.
It also highlights an important moment for the United States: The Romeike case carries significant implications for whether the Obama administration deems homeschooling a fundamental human right.
For now, the Romeikes are preparing for their upcoming hearing, but they fill most days with homeschooling, gardening, teaching piano lessons, and participating in a local church.
The couple acknowledges their case doesn’t look like the kind of persecution that sends refugees fleeing war-torn countries or escaping prison cells in totalitarian regimes. But they insist their plight is dire.
“Jail wouldn’t be the worst persecution for me,” says Mr. Romeike. “I think having your children taken away would be about the worst thing that could happen to you.”
Nearly seven years ago, German police did show up at the Romeikes’ home to take their children to a public school. The incident came six weeks after the couple began homeschooling their three school-age children.
German law doesn’t specifically forbid homeschooling, but it does mandate that children attend school. Homeschools don’t qualify as state-approved schools. German officials have said they oppose homeschooling because they want to prevent “parallel societies” from developing.
Most European countries allow some form of homeschooling, though Sweden and Spain have restrictive laws. Jonas Himmelstrand, president of the Swedish Association for Home Education, fled to Finland with his family earlier last year, citing government harassment and fines for homeschooling.
In a separate case in 2009, Swedish officials took custody of Domenic Johansson from his homeschooling family. The boy remains in a foster home.
In Germany, most children attend public schools, though the number of private schools has grown in recent decades. Still, even Christian schools for German citizens remain under German oversight, and many use the same curriculum as public schools.
That presents a dilemma for some Christian families, especially if they object to parts of the German curriculum like sex education and evolution. Many Christian families tolerate aspects of German schooling they find disagreeable, and work to teach their children a Christian worldview when they’re not in school.
Other Germans—including some non-Christians—want to teach their children at home.
The Virginia-based HSLDA estimates about 400 German families homeschool. It’s difficult to find precise numbers, since most families try to avoid attention. Some hide the practice from their neighbors, fearing they’ll report them to authorities.
For the Romeikes, homeschooling wasn’t their original plan. The couple sent their first two children to public school for three years, but weren’t satisfied with the results: Their oldest son endured bullying and became withdrawn. Their daughter battled anxiety and fell behind in classwork when she needed extra help.
As the couple examined the curriculum, they objected to certain aspects, including early sex education, pro-homosexual teaching, and literature they say encouraged witchcraft. (In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights rejected complaints by a group of Christian parents in Germany who asked to exempt their young children from sex education. German school officials said attendance in the classes was mandatory.)
When a local family suggested homeschooling to the Romeikes, the couple decided it would serve their children better than public schools. Mr. Romeike said that persuasion grew into a Christian conviction to educate his children at home. “God gave us children, and we are responsible for them,” he says in his living room in Tennessee. “We want to do everything we can so they get a good foundation for their lives.”
German authorities weren’t sympathetic. Police arrived to escort the two older children to school in 2006, and Mrs. Romeike retrieved them at lunchtime. The children never returned, and courts began levying fines that eventually grew to more than $9,000. The Romeikes worried authorities could take custody of their children.
It wasn’t an unfounded fear. In 2007, German authorities took custody of Melissa Busekros, a 15-year-old girl from a homeschooling family in Bavaria. Authorities placed the girl in a psychiatric facility, and then in foster care. When she turned 16—and legally could decide where to live—the girl returned to her family. She later said police told her she had been brainwashed by her evangelical parents.
As pressure mounted, the Romeikes contemplated leaving Germany. Mr. Romeike says he investigated moving to Austria (a German-speaking country), but didn’t find suitable job prospects. England was too expensive. (Private schools in Germany were also expensive, and many used the public-school curriculum.)
Eventually, Mr. Romeike spoke with Mike Donnelly, an attorney with the HSLDA who follows homeschool cases in Germany. Donnelly told the family if they came to the United States, the HSLDA would support their application for asylum.
In 2008, Mr. Romeike, a music teacher, sold the piano his mother had given him as a gift before her death, closed up the house he had remodeled with his father-in-law to serve as a custom music studio and residence, and bought plane tickets for his family to travel to the United States.
The Romeikes arrived with 90-day tourist visas, but quickly applied for asylum, hoping to make the United States their permanent home. Five years later, they’re still waiting for a final verdict.
Back in Germany, some homeschool families battle different verdicts.
In some areas, local authorities level fines against homeschoolers, but don’t pursue more stringent action. In other regions, families face serious legal action. For example, the Dudeks—a homeschooling family with eight children—have faced major court hearings every year since 2006. Authorities have levied fines, and sentenced both parents to three months in jail. The Dudeks have avoided jail time by continuing to appeal their case through the German courts.
In a phone interview from his family’s home in Hessia, Jürgen Dudek says he believes homeschooling suits his children best. He also says his Christian beliefs compel him to teach his children at home. “Our children belong to God, and He has entrusted us with those children,” says Dudek. “So we believe we have responsibilities for our children that we can’t delegate.”
Dudek—and the Romeikes—say they’re not suggesting all Christian parents must homeschool, and they acknowledge different Christians come to different conclusions about education. Indeed, both families say many German Christians don’t understand their desire to teach their children at home.
Tension also exists among homeschool families in Germany, including some non-Christian families who don’t have religious reasons for home education, but believe it’s the best method for their children. (Some of these families are known as “un-schoolers” who place less emphasis on traditional learning methods.) When HSLDA held a homeschool conference in Berlin last fall, some homeschoolers objected, saying the publicity brought unwanted attention to their families.
Ultimately, most German Christians send their children to public school. Sebastian Heck—pastor of the Free Evangelical-Reformed Church in Heidelberg—says he supports the freedom for parents to teach their children at home, but doesn’t mind sending his three young children to public schools.
Heck—who grew up attending schools and university in Germany before attending Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia—says the makeup of public schools varies across Germany. He acknowledges objectionable parts of the German curriculum mean Christian parents have to do more at home to help their children cultivate a Christian perspective. He also notes most German parents are significantly involved in their children’s schooling, even if they’re not Christian.
Heck says Germany’s secular mindset makes many Germans wary of organized religion, and especially evangelicals. Public figures lump evangelicals into the same category as radical Islamists, he says: “In the public media, the term ‘fundamentalist’ now covers the bomb-throwing Muslim fundamentalist and the evangelical fundamentalist.”
It’s a perception that leads to an unfair suspicion of homeschooling evangelicals, he says: “General thinking is that homeschooling equals brainwashing, and brainwashing violates the rights of the child.”
Ken Matlack—director of European missions for Mission to the World (MTW)—says all MTW missionaries in Germany send their children to public schools. And though he’s in favor of freedom to homeschool, he says it’s a tough battle in a German culture that places a heavy emphasis on the society and community.
The German constitution says raising children is “the natural right of parents and a duty primarily incumbent upon them.” It adds: “The State shall watch over them in the performance of this duty.”
That’s an oversight the Romeikes don’t want when it comes to homeschooling.
The German Constitutional Court ruled in 2006 that German officials have a right to oppose homeschooling: “The general public has a justified interest in counteracting the development of religiously or philosophically motivated parallel societies.” That’s an argument that’s typically been used to staunch the influence of radical Muslims in Germany.
U.S. immigration judge Lawrence Burman found the logic violates the Romeikes’ religious liberty, and called it “utterly repellant to everything we believe in as Americans.”
American law allows the government to grant asylum if a person is “unwilling or unable to return to his or her home country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
That definition can be broad. For example, the U.S. government considers homosexuals who face persecution in their home countries as part of a particular social group, and sometimes extends asylum. Judge Burman found the Romeikes not only face religious persecution, but are also part of a particular social group that faces persecution in Germany. He granted asylum in 2010.
But the Obama administration appealed Burman’s decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals, arguing that the German law doesn’t violate the family’s religious freedom because it applies to everyone in Germany, not just Christians. The board agreed and overturned the judge’s ruling.
The Romeikes say though the law does apply to all Germans, the German government has used it to target religious homeschoolers. For example, Wolfgang Drautz, consul general of Germany, echoed the country’s constitutional court, saying when it comes to homeschooling, the government has “a legitimate interest in countering the rise of parallel societies that are based on religion or motivated by different worldviews, and integrating minorities into the population as a whole.”
The Romeikes also reject the DOJ’s argument that since not all Christians homeschool, the family doesn’t face Christian persecution. HSLDA attorneys say that argument rejects the notion of individual religious liberty.
Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty agrees. Rassbach co-wrote a Becket Fund amicus brief in favor of the Romeikes. He says the German law not only contradicts an American sense of religious liberty, “I don’t think it fits with the overall idea of human rights.”
Even the United Nations has urged Germany to allow homeschooling in the past, and the group’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”
Michael Farris of HSLDA says the Obama administration is arguing that homeschooling is not a fundamental human right. Rassbach from Becket Fund agrees that’s “a necessary implication” of the government’s argument against the Romeikes.
Rassbach doesn’t worry the case could adversely affect homeschoolers in the United States. He notes the government’s position in a single case won’t change current laws, particularly since most homeschool regulations exist on a state level.
But he also says the case could reveal a bias against religious liberty that is troubling. “It doesn’t translate into an immediate threat,” says Rassbach. “But it’s not good that they take this position.”
Back in Morristown, the Romeikes stay busy with homeschooling and work. Mr. Romeike teaches music lessons to about 20 students.
He recently built a deck and remodeled the garage into an extra bedroom with his 15-year-old son, Daniel. The father and son also work with their local church to complete home improvement projects for needy families in the area.
Mrs. Romeike directs the younger children in their school lessons and encourages their interest in art projects.
They’re thankful for their home, and they try not to worry about the future. “God has led us until now, and He will do the same in the future,” says Mrs. Romeike. “So whatever comes, we take out of His hands and follow Him.”