US grants German homeschoolers asylum. Will others follow?

A US judge granted German homeschoolers asylum in January after ruling they faced persecution in Germany, where the practice is punishable with fines or imprisonment. The US Home School Legal Defense Association says other German families are exploring political asylum in the US.

Wade Payne/AP/file
Uwe and Hannelore Romeike work with their children on their studies at their home in Morristown, Tenn. The German homeschooling couple is seeking political asylum.

A January decision by a US court to grant German homeschoolers political asylum has encouraged other Germans engaged in a decade-long losing battle against their government to take the same action and move their families to the United States.

“We have definitely been in touch with other families. There are other Germans who are exploring coming to the United States to apply for political asylum,” says Mike Donnelly, an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, which filed the claim on behalf of Uwe Romeike, the German father of five who requested asylum. Mr. Donnelly says his organization is willing to represent them.

In January, Judge Lawrence Berman of Tennessee ruled that Mr. Romeike was being persecuted by Germany for teaching his children at home, a practice forbidden by Germany’s Constitution and that can lead to fines or imprisonment there. Children can be removed by German social services if parents insist on homeschooling.

“Homeschoolers are a movement of sorts,” says Peter Spiro, an expert on international immigration law at Temple University Law School in Philadelphia. “The immigration judge looking at this claim said there is a coherence to this group ... and that denying the rights of this group [to homeschool] is persecution.”

Professor Spiro says that other Germans who wish to homeschool children in the US could come here, claim membership in this persecuted group, and get asylum. “Germany is trying to suppress a social movement,” he says. “And they are very aggressive in doing it.”

Religion often cited – but not always

Donnelly says his group is not directly affiliated with a Christian church, but his website mentions staff members’ faith. He also said the homeschooling movement in the US was not just Christian – the National Center for Education Statistics says only 36 percent of homeschooled students are kept home primarily for religious reasons, although 83 percent of homeschooling families cite religious or moral education as at least one factor in the decision.

Still, the movement is largely recognized as a Christian one. Donnelly came to know Romeike though a German homeschooling group with ties to the church.

Most Germans who wish to homeschool cite religion. Jonathan Skeet, a Briton with a German wife who left Germany for Britain in 2006 after being fined, says he was not happy with the sex education in German public schools.

“Our Christian faith influences our whole view of family life, and of course, doing Christian home education was an opportunity to pass on what you think is important, the essence of our Christian values,” he says. “Our main motivation was the quality of the education and the school.”

Romeike, who could not speak with the Monitor because of an agreement with a German TV network, has charged that German schools are anti-Christian.

Insult to Germany?

The official German reaction to the decision was muted. The German Consulate in Atlanta released a statement that parents in Germany have a broad range of educational options and that mandatory attendance guarantees high standards.

But German media have portrayed the case as an insult to the German system. Many Germans are shocked to learn that 1.5 million children in the US are homeschooled and that the practice is legal in countries like France, Italy, and Ireland.

Advocates of homeschooling argue that German compulsory attendance laws were a product of the Nazi government. But they have been around since the 19th century. The Weimar Republic passed such laws in 1919, and after World War II, similar laws – upheld by the European Court of Human Rights – were added to the Constitution.

The German government says the practice guarantees all students a basic level of education taught by certified teachers. It also wants to prevent the growth of “parallel” societies. As the number of Turkish immigrants increases, for example, many Turkish children are not taught German at home. As these children mature, the reasoning goes, they will form a German-Turkish society and not fully integrate.

Read why German public schools now teach Islam.

Meanwhile, there is no political support to alter compulsory attendance laws – or to allow homeschooling. It is also uncertain if the political asylum ruling will stand. The US may appeal the decision, handed down Jan. 27.

Temple’s Spiro says he believes the claim will be overturned. “It‘s pretty clear that requiring children to attend school outside of the home qualifies as a legitimate social policy,” he says. “The Germans are alarmed by this [ruling], but they can have some level of confidence that the decision won’t stand.”

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*The original version of this story did not include the NCES statistic that 83 percent of homeschoolers cite religious or moral factors as one of the reasons they choose to homeschool.

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