Against a backdrop of recent news stories about prosecution of homeschoolers in Germany, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has filed a petition asking the United States Supreme Court to hear its appeal from the Sixth Circuit in Romeike v. Holder, the German homeschooling asylum case. In April 2013, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sustained the Obama administration’s revocation of asylum granted to the family in 2010.
In January 2010, Immigration Judge Lawrence O. Burman granted the Romeike family asylum under the federal Immigration and Naturalization Act. Burman agreed with HSLDA’s argument that Germany’s national policy of suppressing homeschooling violated the Romeikes’ religious faith and that German authorities were improperly motivated to suppress homeschoolers as a social group.
The German Supreme Court has authorized states to ban home education in order to suppress religious and philosophical minorities who could become, in the words of the court, “parallel societies.” The highest criminal court in Germany has authorized the use of force against parents and children in cases of homeschooling.
However, the Board of Immigration Appeals revoked the Romeikes’ grant of asylum. On HSLDA’s appeal, the Sixth Circuit upheld the revocation, stating that Germany’s harsh treatment of homeschoolers did not amount to persecution and that the German authorities were not motivated by an improper purpose.
A Place of Refuge
HSLDA Founder and Chairman Michael Farris, principal author of the petition, disagreed. He said that the U.S. Supreme Court must intervene to settle asylum law and to uphold the principle that America is a refuge for those who are persecuted—even if the persecutors are ostensibly free democratic governments.
“The United States should be a place of asylum for those who are persecuted because of their decision to follow their core religious beliefs,” Farris said. “Parents, not the government, decide first how children are educated. Germany’s notorious persecution of families who homeschool violates its own obligations to uphold human rights standards and must end.”
Farris argued that there is a clear split in the treatment of human rights standards among federal circuits. This split, he said, causes confusion about how to determine when a law that applies to everyone and doesn’t appear discriminatory can still be used to persecute certain groups.
“In virtually all other circuits, the Romeikes’ chances of success would have been decisively higher,” said Farris. “But in this case, the Sixth Circuit created a new standard that dramatically departs from its own, as well as the Supreme Court’s, jurisprudence in U.S. asylum law. The Supreme Court needs to settle this area of law.”
Freedom at Stake
HSLDA Director of International Relations Michael Donnelly said the case is important to the mission of advancing homeschool freedom. Without minimizing the reality of physical mistreatment and other types of international human rights violations, HSLDA believes that Germany’s imposition of crushing fines, seizure of children, and disproportionate criminal penalties amount to persecution against homeschoolers.
“There is persistent persecution against homeschooling families in Germany,” Donnelly said. “I know of at least fifteen cases in Germany, and I’m sure there are many more. These are courageous families who are raising their children according to their religious or philosophical convictions. Many of these families would leave if they could, but simply do not have the means to move out of the country. No one should have to choose between their home and homeschooling. These stories show why it is necessary for the United States to be a place of refuge.”
Thomas and Marit Schaum, homeschooling in the German state of Hesse, are appealing a criminal conviction and fine of over 1,200 euros (about $2,000) for not sending their children to school. The couple faces a hearing on October 16 where, Thomas Schaum told HSLDA, the prosecutor will seek six-month jail terms.
“The prosecutor said that we are criminals and that money fines are not enough,” Schaum said. “We have been homeschooling for some years and have graduated four of our children. They are working at good jobs—they have done well.”
Schaum, who was born in East Germany, attended the University of Weimar for a time. “When I became a Christian in 1984 and realized that one day I would stand before the living God, I realized I could no longer be part of the communist organizations. I left these organizations and went to Bible school. No one thought that the wall would come down, but it did, and freedom came. For me it is a violation of my convictions to send my children to the state school. But when I say this in court they look at me strangely, as if it is somehow crazy to believe in God and to take one’s parental obligations seriously.”
Schaum says that the local social authorities recognize his children are well cared for and that there is no reason to intervene harshly. This is why school authorities have pressed the criminal case.
“The social authorities investigated our family and said there are no reasons to take our children. They even said that all is very good and well and beautiful—yes, beautiful—with this family,” he said.
The threat against homeschoolers’ parental custody in Germany is real, as Dirk and Petra Wunderlich learned on August 29 when authorities seized their four children in a raid in Hesse conducted by armed authorities citing homeschooling as the reason.
After three weeks of international outcry, the children were returned—but only after the parents agreed to put the children in school. The judge in the case warned the family that he was giving them a second chance to demonstrate that they were good citizens.
Human Rights at Issue
HSLDA has been helping the Romeike family since 2008, when they fled from Germany to the state of Tennessee seeking freedom to continue homeschooling.
The October 10, 2013, petition to the U.S. Supreme Court argues that the German Supreme Court’s explicit approval for unequal treatment of homeschoolers for religious or philosophical reasons clearly violates human rights standards that the United States must recognize.
The petition points to rulings of Germany’s high courts explaining that the purpose of the repression of is to prevent “religious and philosophical minorities” from developing into “parallel societies.”
Other European countries are tightening regulations on homeschooling. For example the Dutch minister of education has threatened to eliminate home education in his country. In the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant, state testing is now required of homeschool students, and some Swiss cantons have made homeschooling illegal. In Sweden, the laws explicitly permits homeschooling, but dozens of families have been forced to flee the country because authorities will not tolerate home education.
Donnelly warns homeschoolers in “safe” jurisdictions that persecution can happen anywhere. “It hasn’t been so long since homeschoolers in America were treated this way. Why should we think it can’t happen again? If it has happened here and is happening there, is there any cause to be concerned? I think so,” he said.