The reason for that fear has rarely, if ever, been the basis of an asylum case. The parents, Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, want to home-school their five children, ranging in age from 2 to 12, a practice illegal in their native land, Germany.
Among European countries, Germany is nearly alone in requiring, and enforcing, attendance of children at an officially recognized school. The school can be private or religious, but it must be a school. Exceptions can be made for health reasons but not for principled objections.
But the Romeikes, who are devout Christians, said they wanted their children to learn in a different environment. Mr. Romeike (pronounced ro-MY-kuh), 38, a soft-spoken piano teacher whose young children greet strangers at the front door with a startlingly grown-up politeness, said the unruly behavior of students that was allowed by many teachers had kept his children from learning. The stories in German readers, in which devils, witches and disobedient children are often portrayed as heroes, set bad examples, he said.
“I don’t expect the school to teach about the Bible,” he said, but “part of education should be character-building.”
In Germany, he said, home-schoolers are seen as “fundamentalist religious nuts who don’t want their children to get to know what is going on in the world, who want to protect them from everything.”
“In fact,” he said, sitting on his sofa as his three older children wrote in workbooks at the dining table, “I want my children to learn the truth and to learn about what’s going on in the world so that they can deal with it.”
The reasoning behind the German law, cited by officials and in court cases, is to foster social integration, ensure exposure to people from different backgrounds and prevent what some call “parallel societies.”
“We have had this legal basis ever since the state was founded,” said Thomas Hilsenbeck, a spokesman for the Ministry for Culture, Youth and Sport in the Romeikes’ state, Baden-Württemberg. “This is broadly accepted among the general public.”
The family has been here for some time, having left Germany in 2008. But it was not until Jan. 26 that a federal immigration judge in Memphis granted them political asylum, ruling that they had a reasonable fear of persecution for their beliefs if they returned.
In a harshly worded decision, the judge, Lawrence O. Burman, denounced the German policy, calling it “utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans,” and expressed shock at the heavy fines and other penalties the government has levied on home-schooling parents, including taking custody of their children.
Describing home-schoolers as a distinct group of people who have a “principled opposition to government policy,” he ruled that the Romeikes would face persecution both because of their religious beliefs and because they were “members of a particular social group,” two standards for granting asylum.
“It is definitely new,” said Prof. Philip G. Schrag, the director of Georgetown Law School’s asylum law program, who added that he had never heard of such a case. “What’s novel about the argument is the nature of the social group.”
But, he said, given the severity of the penalties that German home-schoolers potentially face, the judge’s decision “does not seem far outside the margin.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has appealed the decision, Mr. Romeike’s lawyer said Friday. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment, citing the litigation.
The Romeikes had never heard of home schooling when they set out to find an alternative to the local public school in Germany, where their two oldest children — now 11 and 12 — were having trouble with rowdy classmates. The nearby private and religious schools, Mr. Romeike said, were just as bad or even worse.
Then a woman in their church mentioned that some families, though none in the church itself, had taken their children out of school altogether.
“She knew a family, but she didn’t want to mention their name because it wasn’t legal,” Mr. Romeike said.
Months of research followed: the Romeikes read articles, sat in on court cases and talked to other home-schoolers in Germany. Eventually they decided to give it a try. Working with a curriculum from a private Christian correspondence school — one not recognized by the German government — they expected to be punished with moderate fines and otherwise left alone.
But they soon discovered differently, he said, facing fines eventually totaling over $11,000, threats that they would lose custody of their children and, one morning, a visit by the police, who took the children to school in a police van. Those were among the fines and potential penalties that Judge Burman said rose to the level of persecution.
Mr. Romeike began looking to other countries, but his inability to speak anything other than German or English limited his options. Then, at a conference for home-schoolers in 2007, he saw Mike Donnelly, a lawyer for the Home School Legal Defense Association, a Virginia-based advocacy organization
Long before the Romeikes had begun their fight, lawyers at the association had been discussing the situation in Germany. They had tried litigating cases one by one, usually unsuccessfully.
In 2006, after the European Court of Human Rights declined to hear a petition by home-schooling parents that had failed in German courts, lawyers at the association decided to add a political line of attack to the legal one, both to raise awareness of the German policies and to find some broader solution to the issue.
At a brainstorming session, one of the lawyers, Jim Mason, came up with the idea of petitioning for political asylum.
“I don’t know German law or German courts,” Mr. Mason said, “but I do know American courts.”
Another German home-schooling family had already moved to Morristown, so the Romeikes sold many of their belongings, including their grand piano, and came here too. The court battle lasted over a year, and while the Romeikes’ lawyers said they had expected to succeed, they were surprised by the vigor of the judge’s opinion. So was the German government.
“We’re all surprised because we consider the German educational system as very excellent,” said Lutz Hermann Görgens, the German consul general in Atlanta. He defended Germany’s policy on the grounds of fostering the ability “to peacefully interact with different values and different religions.”
Mr. Romeike said he would like to return to Germany if the laws became more amenable to home schooling. There is still hope, he said, though the political landscape does not look too promising right now.
In the meantime, he added, “it’s a good learning experience.”