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SEEKING SANCTUARY: Daniel, Joshua, Christian, Lydia, Uwe, Damaris, Hannelore, and Sarah Romeike (from left).
Matt Rose
SEEKING SANCTUARY: Daniel, Joshua, Christian, Lydia, Uwe, Damaris, Hannelore, and Sarah Romeike (from left).

Schools of thought

Homeschooling | The German government harasses and persecutes that country’s few homeschoolers. A German homeschooling family’s fight for asylum in the United States will say a lot about the U.S. government’s official attitude toward the growing practice

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

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.

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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.

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