NASHVILLE, Tennessee – A couple who fled Germany with their five children over fears they would lose custody for not sending them to school has asked a U.S. appeals court to grant them asylum, saying schools in Germany are anti-Christian.
Uwe and Hannelore Romeike say in court documents that they believe God wants them to teach their children at home.
Germany's government requires students to attend a state-approved school, and parents who violate the law can face fines, jail and possible custody loss.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided this week to hear oral arguments in April. The court will hear two competing pictures of the parents.
In the view of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which represents the parents, the Romeikes have been persecuted by the German government for exercising their right to direct their children's education, like many parents do in the U.S.
The U.S. government, however, believes the Romeikes' case does not rise to the level of persecution and says they are not being singled out for their religious beliefs.
What the Romeikes did and what happened to them is not in dispute.
According to court documents, the Romeikes took their three oldest children out of school in September 2006 because they felt the school was turning the children against the family's Christian values. After a series of visits and letters by officials, police came to the house and drove the children to school. Hannelore Romeike went to the school at recess and took them back home.
Police came three days later, but members of the family's home schooling support group were there protesting, and police left. Next, the government began issuing fines, which eventually totaled about 7,000 euros, or more than $9,000.
The Romeikes decided to leave the country after Germany's highest appellate court ruled in November 2007 in an unrelated case that, in severe situations, social services officials could remove children from their parents.
In 2008, they moved from Bissingen an der Teck in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg to Tennessee and applied for asylum.
The U.S. government said in court documents the Romeikes did not belong to any particular Christian denomination and described the parents' objections to the government-approved schools as vague.
For instance, Uwe Romeike claimed a textbook "featured a story suggesting that `the devil can help you if you ask the devil, but God would not help you,"' the government said. But he could not recall the title of the story or its author.
Romeike also claimed the schools taught witchcraft based on a game played by classmates of his wife when she was in the seventh grade "that involved pushing chairs and glasses around, and dangling a pendulum."
The family initially was granted asylum by U.S. Immigration Judge Lawrence Burman in Memphis in 2010. He concluded that "the (German) government is attempting to enforce this Nazi-era law against people that it purely seems to detest because of their desire to keep their children out of school."
On appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals found Burman's assertion to be erroneous and stated the record did not support the "inflammatory suggestion that it is a Nazi-era law."
The parents appealed to the 6th Circuit.
The Home School Legal Defense Association hopes to use the case to pressure Germany to change the way it treats home-school families, Director of International Relations Michael Donnelly said. The Virginia-based nonprofit group says it has more than 84,000 member families.
"It's a democracy. They respect human rights," he said of Germany. "But in this area, it's frightening how they treat people who want to do something very simple. There are 2 million children home-schooled in the U.S. ... This is not a threat to the German state, but they are treating it that way, and it's wrong."