Uwe Romeike knows his family’s future in the United States is at stake, but he’s hoping the law — and a little prayer — help to keep them in the country.
Romeike, his wife, Hannelore, and five of their six children crowded into a federal courtroom in Cincinnati on Tuesday to hear attorneys argue over whether the family qualifies for asylum. The Romeikes, avowed homeschoolers from Bissingen an der Teck in the state of Baden- Wuerttemberg, Germany, are hoping the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sees the threat of jail time and loss of their children as persecution under German law and allows them to stay in the United States.
The Romeikes, who live in Morristown in eastern Tennessee, are at the center of an international case concerning Germany’s law requiring all school-age children to attend public or private schools and be taught a curriculum outlined by the state. The Romeikes want to home-school their children, a practice banned by the German government.
A three-judge panel from the appeals court fired sharp questions at attorneys for the Romeikes and the Obama administration, which is seeking to enforce an order rejecting the asylum claim. The judges quizzed attorneys on the motivation behind the compulsory school law and whether homeschoolers should qualify as an identifiable social group that could be persecuted.
Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton asked Michael Farris, an attorney for the Romeikes, if the law targets home- schoolers specifically or if it is applied broadly to everyone. Sutton also noted that the Romeikes can spend time after school and on weekends teaching their children whatever they choose.
“What they’re doing is forbidden in that country,” Sutton said. “But Germany is not forbidding home-schooling. ... It’s not like saying you can’t teach them at home in the evenings.”
“There are generally recognized human-rights principles here,” Farris responded. “It’s a religious freedom claim, you honor.”
Farris said international human-rights standards for educating children allow parents the religious freedom to educate their child any way they see fit. By refusing to send their children to schools and choosing homeschooling, the Romeikes are justifiably defying the state to exercise their freedom of religion, said Farris, who works with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va.
Justice Department attorney Walter Bucchini said the German law “isn’t a great law,” but it does allow families the freedom to teach outside of the classroom. No single religion or class of people is being singled out by the statute, Bucchini said.
An immigration judge in Memphis, Tenn., granted the Romeikes’ asylum request in 2010. The federal Board of Immigration Appeals overturned that decision, prompting the appeal heard Tuesday.
According to court documents, the Romeikes took their three oldest children out of school in September 2006 because they felt the school was turning the children against the family’s Christian values. After a series of visits and letters by officials, police came to the house the next month and drove the children to school. Hannelore Romeike went to the school at recess and took them back home.
Police came three days later, but members of the family’s homeschooling support group were there protesting, and police left. Next the government in Germany began issuing fines, which eventually totaled more than $9,000.
The Romeikes decided to leave the country after Germany’s highest appellate court ruled in November 2007 in an unrelated case that, in severe situations, social services officials could take children from their parents.
Standing on the steps of the courthouse, Farris told the assembled supporters that a decision likely is months away, and the family will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case if they lose.
“There’s no reason to despair right now because the judges asked tough questions,” Farris said. “They’ll get to stay here for a while.”