Religious Freedom Fighters

Leah Barkoukis

9/1/2014 9:06:00 PM - Leah Barkoukis

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the September issue of Townhall Magazine. 

In 2008, the Romeike family had a big decision to make about the future of home schooling their children: stay in Germany, where the practice has been banned since 1918, and risk losing custody of their children, or seek political asylum in the United States.

As many are aware, they chose the latter.

By January 2010, all seemed well for the devoutly Christian family. A U.S. immigration judge made an unprecedented decision to grant the Romeikes asylum on religious freedom grounds, saying that Germany’s policy of persecuting homeschoolers is “repellent to everything we believe in as Americans,” and that the family was being denied “basic human rights that no country has a right to violate.”

But the victory would be short lived. The decision was challenged and overturned by the Obama administration, and by 2014, after years of uphill legal battles in the American court system, it looked as though the family may be deported to Germany.

Thanks in part to significant political and media attention, however, the administration suddenly relented in March and granted the family permission to stay in the country indefinitely.

The outcome of the Romeike family’s case was one of the Home School Legal Defense Association’s greatest successes in recent years, William Estrada, HSL- DA’s director of federal relations, tells Townhall. HSLDA, which represented the family, has been advocating for the constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children since 1983.

“It was an incredible victory for the Romeike family and it really showed Germany is out of the mainstream in the way they do not allow any home schooling in their country,” he says, pointing out that even Russia and communist China allow the practice.

Although home schooling may seem like a deep-seated right in America, it was not long ago that HSLDA was fighting for its very survival in this country.

“The first 10-15 years [of HSLDA’s existence] you could say was actually the battle for home schooling’s survival, that was where we were defending families who were in prison; we were fighting to make home schooling legal,” says Estrada, a home-school graduate. “When we were founded in 1983 only a handful of states allowed home schooling. In pretty much all of them, home schooling was a criminal offense because it would be a violation of the truancy laws.”

By the early 1990s when home school- ing was legal in all 50 states, HSLDA transitioned to national work: battling H.R. 6 of 1994, which would have required all teachers, in all types of schools, to be certified in every subject area they teach; trying to keep the federal government from encroaching on home school- ing freedoms; and working to stop U.N. treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Home schooling is very bipartisan. It’s grown and is now recognized by everyone, and what we’re fighting for is more of a long-term defense to protect parental rights, Estrada says.

The numbers alone demonstrate its increased acceptance.

When the U.S. Department of Education first started conducting a quadrennial report in 1999, there were roughly 850,000 home-schooled students. Now, however, there are approximately 1.8 million students, according to its latest report of the 2011-2012 school year.

As the number of home-schooled students has grown, so too has the diversity of the population choosing this education option.

“When home schooling started in the ‘70s and ‘80s it was primarily fundamentalist Christian families who were home schooling because they didn’t like the direction the public school was taking as far as religious issues,” he says. “We are seeing home schooling rising across the board, among secular families, people who are home schooling who think the school is too conservative or too religious, and that has really started to swing the demographic.”

In addition to religious reasons, parents who choose to home-school most often cite concerns about the school environment and the academic content of the public school, the Department of Education has found. There are also sizeable minorities of people who home- school for other reasons, such as military families or families who have a child with a disability.

And Estrada says that anecdotally at least, dissatisfaction with Common Core has contributed to increasing numbers of home-schooled children in the last year or two.

“The good news is that Common Core does not apply to home-schools,” he says, “the bad news is if we’re unable, and I mean public school, private school, and home-school parents, if we’re unable to stop Common Core, we’re very concerned about the future of home schooling. You know, down the road there will be pressure on home schooling to conform.”

College acceptance could become harder for students who have not gone through Common Core, requirements to receive federal student aid could change, and so could standardized testing. For all these reasons, HSLDA remains actively engaged in the fight against Common Core.

There’s no question home schooling- has come of age, but that doesn’t mean HSLDA’s work is over. The association actively promotes home-school-friendly legislation on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the nation, and continues to provide invaluable home-schooling-related legal advice and representation to its more than 84,000 member families.

“We have the greatest members and that’s why we’ve continued to be able to fight for home schooling, for parental rights—those freedoms that are so dear to all parents,” he says. •