Were the Romeikes persecuted? If so, should the U.S. have granted asylum?
Should a family educate their children at home out of faith-based conviction in a country where homeschooling is illegal be able to claim asylum in the United States on grounds of religious persecution?
For Uwe and Hannelore Romeike of Germany, who arrived in the United States in 2008, the question hovered over them for seven years while at once seizing the attention of other homeschoolers, rights advocates and observers the world over. Initially a U.S. immigration judge answered, “Yes, they can.” Then the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in 2010 said, “No,” overturning the ruling.
In May 2013 the family lost an appeal in federal court, and last month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on the case, seemingly sending the Romeikes back to Germany. Yet they’re still at their home in Tennessee, beneficiaries of a decision by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to grant them an indefinite extension of their deferred immigration status.
With the Supreme Court declining to accept the case on March 3 and the DHS granting the family indefinite deferral the next day, the Romeikes’ emotional roller-coaster took another steep descent and climb.
“We were of course very disappointed [by the Supreme Court refusal], but given the fact that the Supreme Court only takes about 1 percent of all cases presented to them, this was to be expected,” Uwe Romeike told Morning Star News. “Aside from the disappointment, we were still hopeful to God that He would do something: either provide a different way for us to be able to stay in the U.S. or open another door for us somewhere else. When we heard about [the DHS decision], we were very relieved and thankful to the Lord for hearing the many prayers of thousands of Christians around the world who were praying for our family!”
The Romeikes and their seven children – the youngest 10 months old, the oldest 17 – needn’t fear being deported anymore as long as they obey laws and report to DHS, but they are left stranded high atop the roller-coaster.
“We are satisfied with this outcome for us as a family, though we would rather be able to become American citizens,” Romeike said. “This resolution is not helpful for other families that now don’t have the opportunity to come here for the same reasons we came. America should be a haven for Christians around the world who cannot freely exercise their faith in the country they live in. It’s sad that this is not the case anymore.”
The Romeikes’ attorney, however, told Morning Star News that their case does not set a precedent.
“There are other families who have suggested they would like asylum, and this case does not definitively proscribe them from doing so,” said Michael P. Donnelly, director of international affairs at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).
Working alongside HSLDA at the European Court of Human Rights to advance the goal that families should be free to decide how to educate their children is rights group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has helped fund the defense of the Romeikes and other families.
“Parents should have the freedom and authority to make decisions regarding their own children’s education without undue government interference,” Benjamin Bull, chief counsel and executive director of global at ADF, told Morning Star News. “This is a basic human right that all courts should recognize, and that includes homeschooling in accord with a family’s faith or values.”
The Romeikes’ plea for asylum on religious persecution grounds was rooted in their belief that it violated their conscience to subject their children to anti-Christian teaching, with the German government fining the couple thousands of dollars and threatening other punishments – jail or loss of custody – for educating them at home.
Reviewing the textbooks used at their local school, the Romeikes decided they could not in good conscience send their children to class there.
“Children were, for example, taught disrespect toward parents, teachers and adults in general, and witchcraft and devil worship was portrayed favorably,” Uwe Romeike told Morning Star News. “The Christian faith was ridiculed.”
In spite of a law in Germany forbidding homeschooling, the Romeikes began homeschooling their children in 2006. After they refused to pay fines for their children’s absences, the school principal met with them and asked what they would do if police enforced the law. The Romeikes dismissed it as an empty threat until police showed up the next month and took three children to school, which was “quite traumatic” for the kids then ages 9, 8 and 6, Romeike says.
When police showed up the next day, four adults and seven minors from the Romeikes’ homeschool support group intervened, and police departed, unwilling to use force, according to court documents. The state continued to fine them – a total of 7,000 euros (roughly US$9,000) by the time they left Germany.
The Romeikes did not want to leave Germany – Uwe, a piano teacher, and his father had built a custom home in Bissingen with a music studio on the first floor – but they sensed they had no choice.
“Had we stopped teaching them at home and sent them back to public school, where we knew they would be taught against the Christian faith, we would have violated our conscience,” Uwe Romeike said. “This might not be physical persecution, but it is mental and spiritual persecution against us parents as well as against our children who at all times wanted to be homeschooled.”
They learned what was happening to other families homeschooling for other reasons: a 15-year-old girl put in a psychiatric clinic and foster home; one couple losing custody, another sentenced to 90 days in jail.
“We also consider it to be persecution if parents constantly live in fear of losing their children to the state when they daily have to expect the child protective service to come and take the children and custody away from them,” Romeike said. “Since that happened to several homeschooling families in recent years, this is not an empty threat. Because we couldn’t live with this fear, we fled Germany.”
The family set up home in Tennessee while their asylum application took two years to make its way to immigration Judge Lawrence O. Burman, and on Jan. 26, 2010, he agreed with the Romeikes. In a 28-page ruling, Burman granted them asylum after determining that homeschoolers were a persecuted particular social group in Germany, that the Romeikes had religious motivation, and that Germany’s persecution of homeschoolers would circumscribe the exercise of their faith.
Attorney Mike Donnelly and Romeikes before asylum hearing on Jan. 20, 2010. (Courtesy of Mike Donnelly)
Their attorney, Donnelly, said the ruling hit media on every continent.
“The decision was an extraordinary recognition of the fundamental importance of the right of parents to raise their children according to the dictates of individual conscience,” Donnelly wrote after the ruling. “Judge Burman noted that the rights being denied the Romeikes were ‘basic human rights that no country has a right to violate.’”
The U.S. Government Agency for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, soon filed an appeal arguing that U.S. law recognized the “broad power of the state to prohibit or regulate homeschooling,” and that this along with other considerations should negate asylum. ICE argued that Germany’s treatment of homeschoolers amounted to prosecution, not persecution, that sanctions had been meted out in a “limited number of circumstances,” and that the Romeikes had failed to “make any effort to locate an acceptable alternative school.”
Those claims had been argued in the first hearing on the case and were shown to be false, according to Donnelly.
Nevertheless, in 2012 the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) overturned the ruling. The BIA argued that religious homeschoolers face no special threats, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit last year upheld the reversal.
“The BIA/6th Circuit essentially ruled that the Romeikes were prosecuted, not persecuted,” Donnelly told Morning Star News. “BIA also found that homeschoolers in Germany were not a ‘particular social group.’”
In 6th Circuit Appeals Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s opinion for the three-judge panel, he stated that Germany had not singled out the Romeikes or homeschoolers in particular for persecution.
“Congress might have written the immigration laws to grant a safe haven to people living elsewhere in the world who face government strictures that the United States Constitution prohibits. But it did not,” Sutton wrote. “The relevant legislation applies only to those who have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion’ … There is a difference between the persecution of a discrete group and the prosecution of those who violate a generally law.”
In his summary opinion, Sutton noted that the Romeikes were trying to meet the religious persecution criteria not on what had already happened, but on claims that the German government would persecute them if they returned.
Romeike said that in his experience with German officials, animosity toward Christianity did emerge.
“They didn’t always do that openly, but they would at least call us bigoted,” he said. “Also, you have to understand that most Germans would consider themselves Christians. That means they wouldn’t necessarily show animosity toward Christianity but rather call us ‘extreme religious’ or fanatic. Most times homeschooling families are portrayed in the media as extreme Christians, fundamentalists, fanatics, alienated from the modern world, even dangerous.”
Little is known about how or why the DHS opted to indefinitely extend the family’s deferred immigration status, with attorney Donnelly saying only, “DHS said that in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, they were granting indefinite deferred action status to the Romeikes.”
The BIA and 6th Circuit’s rulings that Germany’s homeschooling laws did not constitute religious persecution showed that they disregarded the faith-based and personal conscience concerns, Romeike said.
“This administration’s position unfortunately seems to be the same as Germany’s,” he said. “Homeschooling is considered to be a privilege rather than a fundamental human right.”
He added that he and his wife have tried to do what’s best for their children even if it was not the easiest path.
“We know other families that suffer the same kind of persecution because of homeschooling in Germany as we did – many even more, because they lost custody, possessions or face jail time,” he said. “But the outcome of our case upholds the 6th Circuit Court’s decision, which in essence doesn’t recognize Germany’s treatment of homeschooling families as persecution because one can choose not to homeschool in order to be left in peace. They completely disregard the fact that parents do this because of their faith and can’t just quit and thereby violate their conscience permanently. This is not satisfactory for a country that claims to uphold religious freedom.”