CINCINNATI (AP) — Uwe Romeike knows his family's future in the United States is at stake, but he's hoping the law — and a little prayer — help to keep them in the country.
Romeike, his wife Hannelore and five of their six children crowded into a federal courtroom in Cincinnati on Tuesday to hear attorneys argue over whether the family qualifies for asylum. The Romeikes, avowed home-schoolers from Bissingen an der Teck in the state of Baden-Wuerttember, Germany, are hoping the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sees the threat of jail time and loss of their children as persecution under German law and allows them to stay in the United States.
"We are prepared to stay," Uwe Romeike told The Associated Press. "We cannot prepare to leave. I wouldn't know how to do that."
The Romeikes, who live in Morristown in eastern Tennessee, are at the center of an international case concerning Germany's law requiring all school-aged children to attend public or private schools and be taught a curriculum outlined by the state. The Romeikes want to home-school their children, a practice banned by the German government.
A three-judge panel from the appeals court fired sharp questions at attorneys for the Romeikes and the Obama administration, which is seeking to enforce an order rejecting the asylum claim. The judges quizzed attorneys on the motivation behind the compulsory school law and whether home-schoolers should qualify as an identifiable social group that could be persecuted.
Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton asked Michael Farris, an attorney for the Romeikes, if the law targets home-schoolers specifically or if it is applied broadly to everyone. Sutton also noted that the Romeikes can spend time after school and on weekends teaching their children whatever they choose.
"What they're doing is forbidden in that country," Sutton said. "But Germany is not forbidding home-schooling ... It's not like saying you can't teach them at home in the evenings."
"There are generally recognized human rights principles here," Farris responded. "It's a religious freedom claim, you honor."
Farris said international human rights standards for educating children allow parents the religious freedom to educate their child any way they see fit. By refusing to send their children to schools and choosing home schooling, the Romeikes are justifiably defying the state to exercise their freedom of religion, said Farris, who works with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va.
Judge John M. Rogers seemed skeptical of that argument.
"It just seems like you are opening the door to anyone who lives in a country without all the constitutional protections we enjoy here," Rogers said.
Justice Department attorney Walter Bucchini said the German law "isn't a great law," but it does allow families the freedom to teach outside of the classroom. No single religion or class of people is being singled out by the statute, Bucchini said.
"I'm saying it is one of equal application," Bucchini said.
An immigration judge in Memphis, Tenn., granted the Romeikes' asylum request in 2010. The federal Board of Immigration Appeals overturned that decision, prompting the appeal heard Tuesday.
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 the next month 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 in Germany 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 take children from their parents.
The family's hearing in Cincinnati drew 50 to 60 supporters, some of whom snapped photos of the Romeikes outside the federal courthouse. Jurgen Dudek, a 51-year-old home schooling activist in Arkfeld, Germany, sat inside the courtroom during the arguments. After the hearing, Dudek said the government's arguments are "not waterproof at all" and said there's no proof that families such as the Romeikes aren't being singled out.
"There's no freedom in the educational system," Dudek said. "They seem to be afraid of something."
Standing on the steps of the courthouse, Farris told the assembled supporters that a decision is likely months away and the family will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case if they lose.
"There's no reason to despair right now because the judges asked tough questions," Farris said. "They'll get to stay here for a while."
With some spiritual help from their supporters, Hannelore Romeike hopes that is the case.
"There are so many people praying for us," she said.
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