Meeting the German Christians who claimed asylum in America.
In these first days of spring a mood of relief fills Morristown, Tennessee, near the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. After a harsh winter, clouds of white pear-blossom once more soften the hillsides around town.
The air rings with children’s happy cries and the buzz of garden tools. Still more cheeringly, city burghers–led by the mayor, a local state lawmaker and the head of the largest church–no longer face mass arrest, a risk they incurred by vowing to hide a family of asylum-seeking Christian home-schoolers rather than see them deported back to Germany.
Civil disobedience does not come easily to Morristown, a conservative spot of almost 30,000 souls. Yet city fathers swore to endure jail time, if necessary, to shield Uwe Romeike, his wife Hannelore and their seven children, from federal agents with orders to expel them from Morristown, where they have lived since fleeing Baden-Württemberg in 2008.
A stand-off seemed likely when, on March 3rd, the Supreme Court declined to hear a final appeal against the Romeikes’ expulsion, handing victory to the American government, which had always rejected the family’s claims to be refugees from religious and social persecution. However, a day later federal officials put the family’s deportation on indefinite hold–thereby allowing them to stay without setting a legal precedent (and without insulting Germany, a close ally).
German laws forbid parents from educating their children at home in almost all cases, citing society’s interest in avoiding closed-off “parallel societies”. Germany’s highest court calls schools the best place to bring together children of different beliefs and values, in the name of “lived tolerance”. In plainer language, the Romeikes believe that, if they return to Germany, their children face being taken to school by force. This happened in 2006: the youngsters wept as they were driven away in a police van. (On the next school morning supporters showed up and officers backed off.)
Worse, their children might be taken into care–this is the family’s greatest fear, prompting their flight from Germany. As the Romeikes scanned the globe for options, the Home School Legal Defence Association, a Virginia-based group, urged them to apply for asylum in America. The hope was to cause a fuss in the press, says an HSLDA lawyer, Michael Donnelly, and to “fuel the flame of liberty in Germany”.
In America, home-schooling has been legal in all 50 states for more than a generation. About 2m children are home-schooled. Many but not all are Christians whose parents want to shield them from the wickedness taught at Godless public schools. Mr Romeike, a music teacher, works as the pianist at the First Baptist Church in Morristown, which attracts 1,300 worshippers on a Sunday and boasts its own TV station. The church hosts weekly gatherings for 60 home-schooled families, among them the Romeikes. The children meet friends, play sports and take classes (taught by parents) in everything from science to quilting.
The Romeikes’ case has fired up social conservatives across America. Their church belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention, whose spokesman suggested in March that the Romeikes were unwelcome in Barack Obama’s America because, as a heterosexual married Christian couple with well-grounded children, they represented “the antithesis of this administration’s political agenda”.
Morristown’s mayor, Danny Thomas, does not go that far. But he says that locals were deeply upset that the Romeikes were initially granted asylum by a federal immigration judge, only for the government to challenge that ruling. A dapper retired businessman, Mr Thomas was ready to harbour the Romeikes in “some place where they couldn’t be taken”. He is not surprised that home-schooling is on the rise. Christians feel increasingly persecuted, he avers, and it would be hard to find anyone in Morristown who does not believe that “God is being pushed out” of the public sphere. Others call the Romeikes model migrants. Some people come to Morristown “illegally”, says Dean Haun, senior pastor at First Baptist, but the Romeikes did everything by the rules. “They are not on welfare, they’re not asking for handouts. They’re hard-working.”
Tilman Goins, a Republican who represents Morristown in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, recently condemned Germany’s home-school laws as “promulgated under Adolf Hitler in 1938”. Mr Goins was being obtuse. If there is a link between Germany’s home-schooling policy and Nazism, it is that history helps explain German angst about fringe groups with passionate views that reject the liberal consensus.
Father Knows Best v Father State
Many conservative Christians want to portray the Romeikes as religious martyrs. Yet relating his saga in his hilltop home, flanked by a child’s swing and wide, sloping lawns, Mr Romeike mostly describes a sad story of mutual incomprehension, made worse by official bossiness. His countrymen are suspicious because they do not know much about home-schooling, he suggests. It is “the German mentality: things have to be a certain way.” Piety puzzles them too. “If you believe the Bible you are kind of from the Middle Ages.”
Mr Romeike has old-fashioned views, grumbling about German schoolbooks “ridiculing” parents and teachers, for instance. He takes a sternly Biblical line on Creation and homosexuality. But strikingly, he says his children might never have been home-schooled if the two eldest had not been bullied at primary school. Stones were thrown at them. His daughter saw a child’s trousers pulled down. Their headmaster retorted that his school was “peaceful”. Years of legal battles ensued.
At root, theirs is a story about trust in the individual and the role of the state, revealing wide transatlantic differences. Americans assume that most parents try to do what is best for their children. That can be an uncomfortable principle (there are some daft parents, among them Lexington on a bad day). But the alternative–the presumption that the state knows best–is worse.
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