Like many before them, Uwe and Hannelore Romeike uprooted their family and moved to the United States, seeking asylum and the freedom to practice their beliefs.
But the Romeikes’ situation is unique. They did not come from a country ruled by a repressive, dictatorial regime, but from a modern Western democracy. The German couple appealed to the United States after they faced what a Memphis, Tenn. judge deemed to be persecution for their decision to home-school their five children.
In Germany all children are required to attend an officially recognized school. Parents may opt for a private or a religious school, but, except when health conditions make school attendance impossible, home-schooling is not an option.
The Romeikes looked for a school that would be suitable for their children, but they could not find one. The Romeikes are devout Christians. While Uwe Romeike said, “I don’t expect the school to teach about the Bible,” he does expect that his children’s education should help them to develop strong morals. He considers stories in German readers that depict devils, witches and disobedient children in a positive light to be a bad influence.
“German schools use textbooks that force inappropriate subject matter onto young children and tell stories with characters that promote profanity and disrespect,” Mr. Romeike said. The couple also felt that the poor behavior of the students at the schools they considered created a disruptive environment that was not conducive to learning.
So the Romeikes decided to pull their children out of school entirely, joining the estimated 1,000 German families who defy the law in order to teach their children at home. They expected that they may get a few fines, but the reality was far worse than they had anticipated. They received fines that totaled over $11,000, and, one morning, police officers showed up at their door and forcibly escorted the children to school. The Romeikes were told they might lose custody if they did not keep the children in school.
A lawyer from the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association convinced the family to apply for asylum in the United States. In 2008, they moved, and, on Jan. 26, 2010, a federal immigration judge in Memphis, Tenn. granted their petition. Judge Lawrence O. Burman, ruled that the penalties imposed on home-schoolers by the German government were harsh enough to amount to persecution aimed at those with a “principled opposition to government policy.” The judge called the German treatment of would-be home-schoolers “utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans.”
Comments like that tend not to go over well, and the U.S. government is working quickly to smooth things over with its offended ally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has already appealed the ruling. But at the risk of hurting Germany’s feelings, I think the judge got it right.
Governments ought to ensure that all children receive a quality education, but there is no reason that education must be provided in a school building, rather than in the home. A 2009 study that compared the standardized test scores of home-schooled children and public school students in the United States found that those who learned at home scored higher.
In part because of the perceived academic advantages, about 1.5 million American children are home-schooled, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Education. Many, like the Romeikes, use home-schooling as a way to incorporate their morals, faith, and values in their children’s education. But German parents who try to make the same choice as the parents of those 1.5 million American children risk having their families torn apart.
The home-schooling case is just one example of how our country differs from other advanced democracies in the way we view individual freedoms and the limits of state power. We generally give a wider berth for individuals to make choices. We must educate our children, but we can choose to do it at home, unlike German citizens. We can wear religious garb like head scarves and yarmulkes in public schools, unlike in France. We can pay privately for scarce or experimental health care, unlike in Canada.
We must accept other nations’ power to pursue their own view of liberties within their borders, but we need not be complicit in denying individuals’ rights simply to appease our allies. When we see people being targeted and terrorized for doing things that, in this country, they have a widely accepted right and freedom to do, we ought to offer them sanctuary, regardless of where they come from.
This is not a one-way street. Many European countries routinely refuse to extradite criminal suspects to the United States if there is a chance that they might face the death penalty, which is accepted (wrongly, in my view) under our laws but not under theirs. In the 1989 case of Soering v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights held that it would actually be a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights to extradite a person from the United Kingdom to the United States in a capital case.
By not deferring to other countries’ bad policies, we promote an exchange of ideas that can bring advances in human rights on both sides of the Atlantic. When Germans see that Americans do not accept their restrictions on home-schooling and Americans see that Europeans do not accept our continued use of capital punishment, both sides should consider the possibility that our friends might be making an important point.