The Story: In a political asylum case involving a German family that fled to the United States to be able to homeschool their children, the U.S. Justice Department is arguing that the freedom to choose to educate one's own children is not a fundamental right.
The Background: In 2010, Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, who lived with their five children in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, were faced with a choice: abandon their Evangelical Christian religious beliefs or lose custody of their children. The Romeikes had withdrawn their children from German public schools in 2006, after becoming concerned that the educational material employed by the school was undermining the tenets of their Christian faith. After accruing the equivalent of $10,000 worth of fines and the forcible removal of their children from the home, they chose to flee their homeland and seek asylum in the United States.
On January 26, 2010, a federal immigration judge granted the Romeikes political asylum, ruling they had a reasonable fear of persecution for their beliefs if they returned to their homeland. The judge also denounced the German policy, saying it was, “utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans.”
However, President Obama's Justice Department disagreed. They argued that the family should be denied asylum based on their contention that governments may legitimately use its authority to force parents to send their kids to government-sanctioned schools. The case is currently pending in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Why It Matters: As in the abortion-contraceptive mandate case, the Obama administration's primary argument is that as long as a government mandate or ban is constituted broadly and equally (i.e., not directed toward any particular group) then there is no violation of religious liberties. In other words, as long as Evangelicals or Catholics or other specific groups are not directly targeted by a particular law, then they have no basis for seeking an exemption based on conscience.
Additionally, the Obama administration has been arguing that religious liberties are a “group right.” If all members of a religious group hold a belief then it should be considered for protection, otherwise no exemption should be made. For example, the U.S. government contends that the Romeikes' failed to show that they were being discriminated against based on religion because they did not prove that all homeschoolers were religious, and that not all Christians believed they had to homeschool.
As Mike Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Asssocaition (HSLDA), the group that is defending the Romeikes, says:
This argument demonstrates another form of dangerous “group think” by our own government. The central problem here is that the U.S. government does not understand that religious freedom is an individual right. One need not be a part of any church or other religious group to be able to make a religious freedom claim. Specifically, one doesn't have to follow the dictates of a church to claim religious freedom—one should be able to follow the dictates of God Himself. The United States Supreme Court has made it very clear in the past that religious freedom is an individual right. Yet our current government does not seem to understand this. They only think of us as members of groups and factions. It is an extreme form of identity politics that directly threatens any understanding of individual liberty.
As Farris makes clear, this case is not just about a German family seeking asylum but about the parental and religious rights of American families. The Obama administration believes that the rights of parents to educate our children is conditional on the government's approval, a right that is not fundamental but exercised at the whim of government bureuacrats.
“It is important that Americans stand up for the rights of German homeschooling families,” says Farris. “In so doing, we stand up for our own.”