US evangelicals aim to influence European law

In a German court battle, a home-schooled girl was taken from her parents and put in psychiatric ward.

For the past two months, the Busekros family has been fighting a court battle to regain custody of their 15-year-old daughter, Melissa. German police took her from her home here, and placed her in a psychiatric ward. The reason: She was being home-schooled, which violates Germany's compulsory education law.

Melissa's plight has struck a chord with US evangelicals, who often see home-schooling as a way to instill Christian values. American evangelical groups have rushed to the family's aid, providing legal counsel and lobbying the German parliament.

Many American Christians have reached out to the Busekros family, who now have two wicker baskets stuffed with hundreds of letters from supporters. "It reminds us that we are not alone, that there are people standing behind us and giving us the strength to fight," says Melissa's mother, Gudrun.

The Busekros case is emblematic of the growing effort by US Christian legal organizations to take the "culture wars" overseas. Pushing back against a perceived assault on their values by an increasingly secular society, the groups are striving to influence European law on issues ranging from home schooling to stem-cell research to gay marriage. A few recent examples include:

• In Britain, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an organization founded by American evangelical leaders, is funding a lawsuit brought by a Christian man who was fired for refusing to work on Sunday. It is also helping to develop the legal strategy.

• In Sweden, ADF played a key role in persuading the Supreme Court to dismiss charges against Ake Green, a pastor who was convicted of hate-crime charges after he delivered a sermon in which he called gays a "deep cancerous tumor in the entire society."

• In Aruba and the Czech Republic, Pat Robertson's legal organization, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), helped defeat bills that would have legalized same-sex unions.

• In France, ACLJ affiliate ECLJ (the European Center for Law and Justice), is staging a legal challenge against an antisect law that it says is being used to clamp down on evangelical Christian churches.

•And on the European Union level, ECLJ is lobbying to block funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

US courts eye European precedents

Why are American groups going to such lengths to shape the laws in other countries?

"We realized that if we didn't try to mold precedents abroad, they could come back to hurt us, and that the American legal system as we know might change," says Benjamin Bull, chief counsel for the ADF.

He notes that, for example, US judges have drawn on foreign precedents and international standards in several key cases, such as the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which legalized sodomy in the Lone Star State.

In Germany, one of ADF's allied organizations, the Georgia-based International Human Rights Group (IHRG; formerly the European Defense Fund), has had a hand in more than 40 German home-schooling cases.

Last year, the group's president, Joel Thornton, and a German lawyer appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of one home-schooling family.

They argued that forcing the family's Christian children to attend public schools, where the curriculum sometimes runs counter to their beliefs, was a threat to religious freedom.

But the EU court rejected this argument, saying, "Schools represented society, and it was in the children's interest to become part of that society."

On the local level, however, IHRG and its German ally, Schuzh, have won several cases and scored some coups at the negotiating table.

Take, for instance, the case of the Twelve Tribes, a controversial evangelical movement that was founded in the US. Followers live in small, communal groups largely cut off from society.

Until last August, a pocket of Twelve Tribes disciples in Bavaria had been locked in a struggle to keep their children out of public schools.

During that time, they had stacked up around ¤130,000 ($175,000) in fines and seen seven fathers thrown in jail. IHRG and Schuzh were able to persuade the Bavarian ministry of education to allow the group to set up its own school, where children learn creationism instead of evolution and forgo sex education.

The school is now up and running.

Daughter's faith mocked

At the moment, IHRG and Schuzh are involved in more than a dozen home-schooling cases wending their way through the German court system and have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to hear several of them.

One of their top priorities is the case of the 15-year-old home-schooled girl Melissa Busekros. Her parents say that her classmates would mock her faith, kneeling in front of her with their hands pressed together in prayer and saying, "Hail Mary." (Though the Busekroses are evangelical Christians, the students in heavily Roman Catholic Bavaria didn't appear to recognize the distinction.)

The last straw came when she started failing Latin and math, at which point her parents began home-schooling her.

After more than two years of trying to get Melissa back in school, state officials pulled her from her home in February and placed her in a psychiatric ward.

The Erlangen youth-welfare office declined to comment on her case, but a psychological evaluation that the office ordered said Melissa was suffering from emotional problems, including "school phobia," and had to be removed from her home for own well-being.

She is now living with a foster family.

US group encourages confrontation

Mr. Thornton, IHRG's president, has been meeting regularly with Melissa's parents and other German home-schooling families since the organization was founded in 2004. Often, he says, he encourages them to invite confrontation so that he can draw media attention to their cases.

"I try to teach them the American attitude and understanding that this is a fight you can fight – that standing up for their beliefs in the court system is a God-given right," he explains.

While Thornton works to educate European Evangelicals about the American approach to such legal battles, the European Center for Law and Justice is striving to educate American students about European law "from a Christian perspective."

For the past several years, it has hosted a five-week summer session in Strasbourg for law students at Pat Robertson's Regents University. Much of the focus is on issues such as hate-crime laws and same-sex marriage.

The program culminates in a summit with international leaders. Last year's group included American Ambassador to the European Union C. Boyden Gray, former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, a deputy prime minister, and a handful of EU lawmakers.

The goal, says ECLJ attorney Roger Kiska, is "preparing the next generation of Christian lawyers to work on a global level."

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Lawyers and lobbyists for Christian rights in Europe

Alliance Defense Fund (ADF)

Scottsdale, Ariz.

Founded: 1994 by influential evangelical Christians, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family. In addition to its 30 full-time staff attorneys, it has 1,000 allied attorneys in the US, each of which commits to 450 hours of pro-bono work over a two-year period.

US work: 31 Supreme Court victories, including one that allowed Boy Scouts to ban gay troop leaders.

Activities abroad: Has provided funding, strategy, and legal counsel for the past three years. Allied with IHRG.

International Human Rights Group (IHRG) – Rome, Ga.

Founded: 2004 under the name European Defense Fund (EDF) by Joel Thornton, a former American Center for Law and Justice attorney and one-time director of its European operations. EDF, which will remain a "project" of the IHRG, still maintains a website:

Activities abroad: Has had a hand in 40-plus German home-schooling cases; lobbies German officials and the European parliament. Receives ADF funding.

American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) – Washington

Founded: 1990 by Pat Robertson. Has a membership of more than 500,000. Sends mass e-mails regularly to more than 1 million recipients. Estimates listenership to its Jay Sekulow Live radio show at 1.5 million daily. Also has a television show that reaches 90 million homes in the US alone.

US work: Represented Terri Schiavo's parents; two of its Supreme Court victories have become benchmarks in religious-liberties litigation; its chief counsel helped draft key legislation, including 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Activities abroad: Has 13 staff attorneys and two affiliates in Europe: the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) in Strasbourg, France, and the Slavic Center for Law and Justice (SCLJ) in Moscow. Has argued cases before the European Court of Human Rights; also lobbies the European Parliament.

Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA)

Purcellville, Va.

Founded: 1983 by Michael Farris and current president J. Michael Smith.

US work: Protects rights of home-schooling families through legal action and political lobbying. Played a major role in changing the compulsory education laws that made it difficult for parents in many states to home-school their children.

Activities abroad: Plays a key role in establishing and funding home-schooling advocacy groups abroad, including Schulunterricht zu Hause (Schuzh), the legal muscle behind dozens of German home-schooling cases.

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