MORRISTOWN, Tenn. – Homeschooling is so important to Uwe Romeike that the classically trained pianist sold his beloved grand pianos to pay for moving his wife and five children from Germany to the Smoky Mountain foothills of Tennessee.
Romeike, his wife Hannelore, and their children live in a modest duplex about 40 miles northeast of Knoxville while they seek political asylum here. They say they were persecuted for their evangelical Christian beliefs and homeschooling their children in Germany, where school attendance is compulsory.
When the Romeikes wouldn't comply with repeated orders to send the children to school, police came to their home one October morning in 2006 and took the children, crying and upset, to school.
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"We tried not to open the door, but they (police) kept ringing the doorbell for 15 or 20 minutes," Romeike said. "They called us by phone and spoke on the answering machine and said they would knock open the door if we didn't open it. So I opened it."
Romeike, like many conservative parents in the U.S., said he wanted to teach his own children because his children's German school textbooks contained language and ideas that conflicted with his family's values.
He had to pay fines equivalent to hundreds of dollars for his decision, and he's afraid that if he returns to Germany, police will arrest him and government authorities will take away his children, who range in age from 11 to 3.
The Romeike asylum case is expected to go before an immigration judge in Memphis on Thursday, according to Michael Donnelly, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association representing the family.
Bernadette Meyler, a Cornell Law School professor who has studied differences in religious liberty between the U.S. and Europe, said she's never heard of another case like this in the U.S.
Ana Santiago, a regional spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency is barred from discussing specific political asylum cases and doesn't keep track of the reasons asylum is granted.
Donnelly says the Romeikes saw more freedom to homeschool in the U.S.
"Germany sticks out in the midst of Western Europe for having this harsh repression against parents," Donnelly said. "They have this notion that homeschool creates this parallel society and they deem that as dangerous."
Lutz Gorgens, German consul general for the Southeast U.S., said he's not familiar with the Romeikes' specific situation but believes the claim of persecution is "far-fetched." He defended Germany's requirements for public education.
"For reasons deeply rooted in history and our belief that only schools properly can ensure the desired level of excellent education, we (Germany) go a little bit beyond that path which other countries have chosen," Gorgens said.
Germany's approach to homeschooling is starkly different to the U.S. and other European countries. Homeschool students have been growing by an estimated 8 percent annually in the U.S. and as of 2007 totaled about 1.5 million.
Only about 500 children in Germany are taught at home, experts estimate.
Romeike took his three oldest children out of school in Bietigheim-Bissingen in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2006.
His oldest child, Daniel, had a health textbook that used slang terms to describe sexual relations — including the German equivalent of the "F-word." Other schoolbooks taught disrespect of authority figures and had images and tales about the occult, that included vampires and witches, Romeike said.
"It's really different in public schools today than when I was in public school," Romeike said. "They (the state) believe children must be socialized and all kids must grow up the same and act the same, otherwise they wouldn't fit in society."
German state constitutions require children attend public schools. Parents who don't comply face punishment ranging from fines to prison time. Germany's highest appellate court ruled in November 2007 that, in severe cases, social services officials could remove children from their parents' care.
Not long after the Romeikes removed their children from school in September 2006, the principal talked to the parents about their concerns but urged them to send their children back to class. A letter from town mayor said the couple would be fined 30 euros per child each day they weren't in school. When the Romeikes didn't comply, police went to the home the following month.
Susanne Neib, spokeswoman for Baden-Wuerttemberg's Ministry of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports, said that when authorities learn of cases like the Romeikes, they visit the home to explain the benefits of public school.
She said the state tries to intervene against homeschooling very rarely, though she declined to estimate how often such cases arise.
The Romeikes went before a German district judge in 2007 to defend their homeschooling but lost, and higher courts refused to look at the case.
Donnelly's group helped the family move last August to Morristown, where the Romeikes say numerous other families homeschool their children.
Meyler said the U.S. is more tolerant of homeschooling because of religion's prominence in the country's founding. Germany is more concerned about educating students equally, she said.
"The idea is homeschooling might lead to the emergence of separate societies that would not share the same vision of the (German) state," Meyler said.
But interest in homeschooling hasn't died out. Elisabeth Kuhnle of the Network for Education Freedom, a German homeschool advocacy group, says as many as 50 families attended a recent meeting in Baden-Wuerttemberg.
The consul, Gorgens, and other officials maintain that most parents in Germany believe it's most appropriate to send children to schools.
"If you put that to a vote, I'm sure that the obligation to send kids to school would be overwhelmingly accepted. It's a popular thing, which does not say that every single parent is happy about it."