Apr 25, 2013

Judges seem skeptical of homeschoolers' persecution claims

The three judges set to decide whether a German homeschooling family qualifies for asylum in the United States seemed skeptical during a court hearing Tuesday in Cincinnati, Ohio, according to news reports.

Uwe and Hannelore Romeike are arguing that homeschoolers ought to be considered a "particular social group" persecuted by countries that have laws requiring all children attend public or state-approved private schools. According to U.S. law, people persecuted because they belong to a "particular social group" are granted asylum. The law does not define the term, but federal courts have generally interpreted it as meaning a group that has some immutable characteristic. A lower court found that the family could not be considered religious or political refugees. If the Romeikes lose the appeal, they will not be required to return to Germany, but they will have to leave the U.S.

One of the three judges who will decide the case asked pointedly whether any German law is targeted at homeschoolers specifically, or if the law is not rather of general applicability. He also said that it's entirely possible for children to attend a public school and still receive additional private training from their parents, the Associated Press reported.

"Germany is not forbidding home-schooling ... It's not like saying you can't teach them at home in the evenings," said Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, a George W. Bush administration appointee.

A second judge said that ruling in the Romeike's favor would mean "opening the door" to many, many asylum seekers. The judge speculated that such a precedent would possibly mean anyone in any country being punished under a law not supported by the United States would be entitled to refugee status.

The third judge on the panel said that Germany's rules about mandatory education do not seem designed to suppress Christianity or oppress homeschoolers, but to integrate minorities into society and teach tolerance.

Michael Farris, the Romeike's lawyer and the head of the homeschool organization that encouraged the family to emigrate to America when they were facing legal trouble at home, rejected the idea that public schools might be socially valuable by teaching tolerance. He said, "If that's tolerance, it's tolerance unknown in a free society," according to the Baptist Press.

After the 38 minutes of oral arguments and judges' questions, the Baptist Press' reporter concluded that "the judges suggested that they may not grant asylum, arguing that mistreatment by the German government is not tantamount to persecution and not necessarily a ground for allowing the family to remain in America."

That is exactly what the Justice Department lawyers are arguing.

In court, the Obama administration representative said the German law "is not a great law." But that's not the same as persecution, he said, and isn't grounds for considering those in violation of that law a protected, "particular social group."

Farris, for his part, was holding out hope on Tuesday afternoon that the judges would decide in favor of the homeschoolers. In a statement he said "tough questions were asked on both sides, and it's hard to predict the outcome," but "God can intervene."

The German homeschoolers have may supports on the American right -- including Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee -- who are hoping for divine help. As Hannelore Romeike noted outside the courthouse after the hearing, "there are so many people praying for us."

In addition to prayers, supporters have also organized social media campaigns calling attention to the case and accusing the Obama administration of siding with Nazis and harboring Latin American criminal immigrants while deporting good homeschooling Christians. To date, more than 120,000 people have signed a petition stating that the "Romeikes hope for the same freedom our forefathers sought. Please grant the privilege of liberty to the Romeike family."

According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, the federal courtroom overflowed with supporters during the hearing. The Associated Press put the number of supporters in attendance at about 50 or 60.

It could be several months before the appeals court judges rule on Romeike vs. Holder.