Asylum seekers: the term conjures up images of desperate families fleeing impoverished, war-torn countries.
But the Romeike family, who live in the US state of Tennessee, are not ordinary asylum seekers. Devout Christians from southwestern Germany, the Romeikes say they will be persecuted if they are made to return because their five children are homeschooled – which is forbidden in the European Union’s most populous country.
Next month, an American appeals court will hear oral arguments on whether they should be allowed to stay, in a case legal experts say will help clarify the scope of US asylum law.
Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, both music teachers, decided to take their children out of the public school system in 2006, claiming they were “bombarded with negative influences” and taught disrespect for authority.
As a result, the parents were slapped with thousands of euros in fines, and one day, Uwe alleged, police came to their home to take the crying children to school in a police van.
“They have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return home,” said their lawyer, Michael Donnelly, who works for the US-based Home School Legal Defense Association. Citing documents like the UN Declaration on Human Rights, Donnelly told Al Jazeera he believes Germany’s laws against homeschooling violate its international legal obligations.
In 2010, the Romeikes were granted asylum in the US by a judge who agreed with their argument that the German government was “attempting to circumscribe their religious beliefs”. But the ruling was overturned, and the case is now before the US’ Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
An ‘exceptional’ case
“[The Romeikes] have a well-founded fear of persecution if they return home.”
– Michael Donnelly, Home School Legal Defense Association lawyer
The Romeike case is the first of its kind in the US in which a homeschooling family has sought asylum, said Donnelly.
Karla McKanders, who teaches refugee law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, explained that a finding in favour of the Romeikes would create legal precedent that could allow other homeschooling families to win asylum. She believes, however, that the family faces an uphill battle.
According to Donnelly, since the Romeikes’ bid for asylum a handful of other German families have also sought refuge in the US, but their cases have not yet gone through the courts.
Germany’s deputy consul general to the southeastern US called the case “exceptional”. Very few Germans apply for asylum in the US, and most of these cases are rejected, Dr Alfred Schlicht told Al Jazeera.
School attendance was made compulsory in Germany in 1918, said Professor Dr Volker Ladenthin of the Center for Teacher Education in Bonn, and home education was permitted only in special cases.
But in 1938, school attendance laws were bolstered to facilitate the spread of Nazi ideology, said Jörg Großelümern of the Education Freedom Network, a pro-homeschooling group in Germany. “Private schooling at home was not possible from this time on,” he said.
Germany’s hard line against homeschooling continues today, in contrast to many of its EU neighbours which take softer stances. No statute explicitly bans home education, but Germany’s 16 states mandate school attendance and impose strict penalties on parents who flout the law.
Certain states are especially harsh: Jürgen Dudek, a father of eight from Hessen, estimates he has been brought to court about once a year because he continues to homeschool his children. In 2008, Dudek and his wife were sentenced to three months in prison, though the sentence was eventually overturned.
In 2007, a decision by Germany’s highest court ruled that parents can in some cases be deprived of custody rights if they homeschool. Dirk Wunderlich, also from Hessen, said that last year a court limited his and his wife’s custody: for instance, he said, they are not allowed to take their children out of the country without prior permission.
School facilitates “peaceful dialogue between different views, values, religions and worldviews”.
– Sylvia Schill, Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs
Today, Ladenthin estimates there are just 300-600 children who are homeschooled in Germany. Many are practicing Christians who see it as their duty to teach their own children.
“Without the belief in Christ,” said one homeschooling father who asked not to be named to protect his identity, responding to the legal hassles can become overwhelming. “You need to have a strong faith.”
Others, though, do so for secular reasons: Dagmar Neubronner, who ran a small publishing house in Bremen before moving to France, decided to homeschool because one son was advanced beyond his grade level and the other was unhappy in school.
But German policymakers argue that homeschooling leads to the emergence of “parallel societies” separate and isolated from the mainstream. Sylvia Schill, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera that school is necessary so that “a peaceful dialogue between different views, values, religions and worldviews can be held”.
To win asylum in the US, the Romeikes must prove they are members of a persecuted religious or social group. The US Department of Justice, however, contends that Germany’s stance against homeschooling does not constitute persecution.
The Romeike’s case has trickled into American political discourse, with some on the right arguing the US position represents an attack on religious freedoms. Last week, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called the Department of Justice’s arguments “pretty frightening”, claiming if the Romeikes lost their asylum bid it would “have a chilling effect”.
Although Germany takes a strict line on homeschooling, Neubronner does not think the issue is confined to her native country’s borders.
If a developed and highly educated country like Germany can take such a position, Neubronner argued, “the liberty to homeschool is endangered all over the world”.
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier