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German homeschoolers case has implications for religious freedom in America

EDITOR’S NOTE: See today’s column by Barrett Duke on the deportation issue facing German couple Uwe and Hannelore Romeike.

WASHINGTON (BP) — The case of the German homeschooling family who sought refuge in the United States and now is facing a deportation fight has implications for Americans, particularly when the U.S. government has said a nation violates no one’s rights if it bans homeschooling entirely.

“There are implications arising from the case that impact religious freedom for everybody and particularly the application of religious freedom to the homeschooling context,” Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, told Baptist Press.

“Everyone who values religious freedom ought to be really paying attention to what’s going on here because the Obama administration’s position is that religious freedom is not an individual right but only a group right,” Farris said.

The case involves Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, devout Christians who fled Germany in 2008 after facing exorbitant fines, forcible removal of their five school-age children and possible imprisonment because they chose to homeschool their children in a nation where homeschooling is illegal.

The Romeikes were granted political asylum in 2010 but the U.S. government overturned that decision in 2012. Their case now is being appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Farris will present oral arguments on their behalf April 23.

According to the arguments made by the U.S. government in Romeike v. Holder, Farris said, “If you believe that God wants you to do something, that’s not going to be a protected religious belief unless you’re part of a church that forces you to take whatever action is in question.

“Most evangelical Christians — in fact most American Christians — don’t think that way. We view religious freedom as individual, but the Obama administration doesn’t,” Farris said.

The U.S. government said the German homeschoolers were not being religiously persecuted by their government because they could not prove that all homeschoolers were religious or that all Christians believed in the need for homeschooling.

The U.S. government, in the Romeike case, also said there was no violation of anyone’s protected rights in a law that entirely bans homeschooling. There would only be a problem if Germany banned homeschooling for some but permitted it for others, according to Farris’ explanation of the government’s position.

In addition to persecution for religious reasons, the U.S. law of asylum says a refugee can stay in the United States permanently if he can show he is being persecuted as part of a “particular social group.”

The government said the Romeikes do not meet this standard because the family can change — as in stop homeschooling their children and send them to public schools.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is the official in charge of making the ultimate decision regarding the Romeikes, Farris said.

“All immigration cases of this sort are the name of the applicant against the attorney general. That’s standard,” Farris said. “But we are aware that he knows personally about the case. What it says is that this decision is being made at a very high level by the administration and it’s not some obscure clerk making a decision they don’t know about.”

It’s unclear why the U.S. government appealed the grant of asylum to the Romeike family, who live now in Tennessee.

“There is no good explanation of why they decided to grant leniency to 11 million illegal immigrants while being incredibly harsh to this family,” Farris said.

Even if U.S. law does not require the government to allow the Romeikes to stay in America, Farris said, “it certainly permits them to do that, and if they had an ounce of leniency, this case would go away. They would let this family stay in the United States.”

The United States’ relationship with Germany plays a role in this case, Farris said, pointing specifically to the fact that Germany is perceived as a Western democracy.

Even so, Farris believes the Romeikes have a “very good case.”

“No case of this nature is guaranteed, but there are strong cases and there are weak cases, and I think this is a strong case,” he said.

In addition to the legal battle, the Home School Legal Defense Association has initiated a petition asking the Obama administration to grant the Romeikes permanent legal status.

The White House requires 100,000 signatures before a petition will be answered, and as of April 8, nearly 15,000 more signatures were needed by the April 18 deadline. The petition can be accessed at hslda.org/romeike.

Del Tackett, a Focus on the Family spokesman, expressed support for the HSLDA’s efforts to defend the Romeike family and underscored the implications of their case.

“[The U.S. government] doesn’t believe that parents have a right to educate their children,” Tackett said April 4. “It is more in line with the National Education Association that homeschooling shouldn’t be allowed. It believes that the government can best educate ‘America’s children.’ It doesn’t want another worldview taught in this country. It wants America’s children to have one worldview and one worldview only.”

Tackett urged people to sign the White House petition, saying, “This will be the first time that I have advocated signing a petition, but I believe this is a critical issue, one that is being played out behind big media coverage and one that could put a deep chill in the rights of parents in this country to determine the educational direction of their children.”

Karla McKanders, an asylum and refugee law specialist at the University of Tennessee, told ABC News that immigration officials may be wary of setting a precedent with the Romeike family that establishes homeschooling as a means for asylum.

“They don’t want to open up the floodgates for similar asylum claims based on these grounds,” McKanders said.

Farris likened the Romeikes to the Pilgrims who came to America to seek religious freedom for themselves and their children. In Germany, the Romeike children had been bullied at school for their religious beliefs — before being homeschooled — and had been instructed contrary to their Christian beliefs.

HSLDA also continues to work on a parental rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Parental rights are an implied right, and I think this case demonstrates the danger of implied rights,” Farris said. “If they’re not written down in the black and white text, people are going to play games with you, and we need to stop the government from playing games.”

The text of the proposed amendment reads, “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right. Neither the United States nor any state shall infringe this right without demonstrating that its governmental interest as applied to the person is of the highest order and not otherwise served.

“This article shall not be construed to apply to a parental action or decision that would end life,” the proposed language continues. “No treaty may be adopted nor shall any source of international law be employed to supersede, modify, interpret, or apply to the rights guaranteed by this article.”

The amendment was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate but was referred to subcommittees. Supporters of the amendment are encouraged at parentalrights.org to contact their representatives to express interest in seeing the amendment added to the Constitution.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. See accompanying column by Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Erin Roach