How American Homeschoolers Enabled and Funded German Child Abuse: The Real Story Behind the Religious Right and the Twelve Tribes
Twelve Tribes members perform a ceremonial dance representing “the battle of Armageddon,” using banners that announce and condemn “the sins of the modern age.”
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
“Without the assistance of American homeschoolers, these advancements would not have been possible.”
~ Homeschool Legal Defense Association, concerning German legal association Schulunterricht zu Hause
Last week, German police raided a monastery and farm belonging to a religious cult in Bavaria. They removed 40 children on allegations of child abuse. While the event was originally portrayed by the cult as well as American right-wing news sources as religious persecution, that portrayal was quickly proven wrong. Video evidence of cruel and systematic abuse of children surfaced.
Some homeschool advocates originally attempted to chalk this up as another example of “German intolerance” of homeschooling. German homeschool advocate Jörg Großelümern, who leads the HSLDA-allied Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit (or Network for Freedom in Education), had brought the situation to the attention of Michael Farris, chairman of HSLDA, the U.S.-based homeschool lobbying organization. Großelümern alleged that “the authorities want to create a fait accompli because school holidays will end next week in Bavaria and their private school is not approved by the state.” Farris responded in turn, “Thanks so much for the info and for your leadership and courage.”
When evidence surfaced of real and horrific abuse, however, these homeschool advocates immediately distanced themselves from the cult. Großelümern backpedaled: ”I didn’t know what was going on behind the curtain of this sect. They didn’t tell the truth and things must be judged differently now.”
Farris added that, “My sources were wrong,” Which makes sense, since his source was Großelümern.
People can, and do, make mistakes. People can have lapses of judgment. But the elephant in the room is how a German homeschool leader like Großelümern, and an international homeschool advocate like Farris, would not first wait to find out what was “going on behind the curtain.” It is slightly unsettling that their gut reactions to allegations of child abuse in a group universally recognized as a cult was to assume the best about cult parents over the well-being of children.
But more than this, it is entirely disingenuous.
The cult in Bavaria, otherwise known as the Twelve Tribes, has been actively defended directly and indirectly through the actions of American homeschool advocates — most notably, by HSLDA itself — for the last decade. These advocates have organized legions of American homeschoolers and funneled over $100,000 of American money to groups that have directly and unabashedly supported this cult and its “rights.” Whether through sheer ignorance, or turning a blind eye, HSLDA and fellow homeschool advocates have encouraged Americans to both enable and fund child abuse in Germany.
A Summary of the Twelve Tribes
The Twelve Tribes is a religious cult founded in 1972. I say “cult” not as a dismissive pejorative but because its former members have declared it to be such, using descriptions such as: “The Community instills intense fear in their members,” “The Twelve Tribes cult denied my right to make free will choices,” and “mind control.”
Former members also argue that common allegations of child abuse within the Twelve Tribes are not only real, but more prevalent than even the news reports state:
- “Former members made many accusations of child abuse and I’ll state unequivocally that abuse (physical, mental and emotional) occurred.”
- “The newspapers often sensationalize information, but the child abuse within the Twelve Tribes was 10 times worse than reported.”
- “We witnessed the beating of children almost to the point of death.”
The cult was created by Gene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee and was influenced by the “Jesus Movement” of the time. The cult’s beliefs mirror those of Christian fundamentalism and Messianic Judaism. They homeschool their children, hold to a form of Quiverfull ideology, and champion home births with midwives. Adherents to Spriggs’s cult have branched out from Tennesse and now live in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. In 2001, a New York branch of the cult got in trouble over child labor allegations.
The most recently newsworthy branch is the branch in Germany, where it is known as ”Zwölf Stämme.”
The Twelve Tribes branch in Germany acquired the Klosterzimmern estate in Bavaria, Germany in the summer of 2000.
The cult believes homeschooling is the only Christian form of education. Since, according to them, education “must take place within the ‘church’ or the community of believers,” “[they] train [their] children in [their] own homes.” They also “do not send [their] children to college because they “do not think college is a healthy environment.”
On Thursday, September 5, 2013, German police removed 40 children from the Twelve Tribes’ monastery and farm — their homes in Klosterzimmern and their other home at the Georg-Ehnes-Platz. The Twelve Tribes’ original press release from September 5 portrayed the removal as religious discrimination or persecution, that they were “found guilty based on their association with a religious faith” and that “no specific evidence was produced against any individual affected.”
However, according to the Guardian UK, the police were very clear that the raid was due to “accusations of child abuse.” The state education ministry also was clear, according to the German paper The Local, that it “did not have anything to do with topic of school attendance.”
Unlike some of the reports you might have heard from HSLDA, Fox News, WorldNetDaily and WORLD Magazine, German children are not necessarily required to attend public school nor is homeschooling carte blanche illegal. The German government sanctions public, private, and religious schooling. (In fact, Article 7, Paragraph 4 of Germany’s constitution guarantees the right to establish private schools.) They even sanction homeschooling for families who travel significantly as well as families with sick children.
Indeed, the Twelve Tribes themselves originally had a license to operate a private school. But according to the Guardian, they lost this license due to “unfit teachers”:
Teaching licences were recently withdrawn from the sect’s own school near the town of Deiningen, near Augsburg, with inspectors declaring its teachers unfit.
On their website, the Twelve Tribes say that, “Our children grow up in a loving environment and are educated in the spirit of charity.” Though just last year there were concerns as well, according to the Guardian:
Following a magazine investigation last year in which the abuse allegations were raised, the sect strongly denied allegations of abuse, declaring: “We are an open and transparent community which does not tolerate any form of child abuse.”
So the cult denied allegations of abuse. Yet the police said that the raid was due to ”fresh evidence indicating significant and ongoing child abuse by the members.” Though, of course, that is not how WORLD Magazine and others presented the situation. WORLD emphasized that police “didn’t offer details” and highlighted the supposed illegality of homeschooling in Germany and how police had recently “forcibly removed” the children of “a homeschooling family” — as if to connect the Twelve Tribes situation with the “persecution” of German homeschoolers in general.
Now the evidence is out there, though. Not only does it have nothing to do with homeschooling, it also is not pretty. According to the Independent on September 10, 2013, in an article entitled “In Germany’s Twelve Tribes sect, cameras catch ‘cold and systematic’ child-beating”:
Within the space of a few hours, six adults are filmed in the cellar and in an underground school central heating room beating six children with a total of 83 strokes of the cane. The graphic and disturbing scenes were shown on Germany’s RTL television channel last night. They were filmed by Wolfram Kuhnigk, an RTL journalist equipped with hidden video cameras and microphones, who infiltrated a 100-strong religious community run by the fundamentalist “Twelve Tribes” sect in Bavaria earlier this year. Kuhnigk claimed to be a lost soul to gain entry… He collected 50 beating scenes on camera… Mr Kuhnigk’s clandestinely obtained evidence prompted police and youth workers to raid two “Twelve Tribes” communities in Bavaria last Thursday… The evidence he collected at the sect’s community in a former monastery near the village of Deiningen exposes a dark world in which children have no rights and are subjected to round-the-clock surveillance and persistent beatings for the most trivial offences.
While the exposed child abuse is horrifying and not related to German homeschool laws, this is not the first time the Twelve Tribes has been in trouble. They were in trouble as recently as 2004, and that situation involved homeschooling. It also coincided with another important German homeschool situation.
Two Sets of Seven Families
Between 2004 and 2005, 2 different sets of 7 homeschool families each ran into trouble with the German school system. The first set of 7 involved the Twelve Tribes community in Klosterzimmern — the exact same community that just got busted for cold and systematic child abuse. The second set of 7 involved families from a fundamentalist Baptist community in Paderborn, Westphalia. Since right-wing media and American homeschool advocates often compared and connected these two sets of 7 families, it is important to look at each.
The Twelve Tribes Seven
In September of 2004, 7 homeschooling fathers from the Twelve Tribes were arrested for refusing to send their children to state-approved schools. To understand what happened, we must first rewind to 2002. Remember, too, that the Twelve Tribes had only acquired the Klosterzimmern estate in Bavaria a mere two years prior in 2000. So this is occurring shortly after they took residency in this area.
In October of 2002, German police raided the Twelve Tribes and took their children to a nearby primary and secondary school — as is required by law. While the raid led to dramatic scenes, not much actually happened. The kids were taken to school, the Twelve Tribes’ families were heavily fined, and then the Twelve Tribes families did not pay the fines. The bailiff actually felt some sense of sympathy for them.
Two years later in September of 2004, despite everything that happened, the Twelve Tribes still refused to send their children to state-approved schools and still refused to pay the fines. Since they refused to pay the fines for two years, the fines — according to the German newspaper The Spiegel — had reached “a six-figure sum.” So finally, after two years of breaking the law, 7 of the homeschooling fathers from the Twelve Tribes were arrested and placed in prison.
That same month, over in the United States, Ron Strom from WorldNetDaily wrote an article about the situation entitled “7 HOMESCHOOLING DADS THROWN IN JAIL.” He reported,
Seven homeschooling fathers in Germany spent several days in jail for refusing to pay fines that were imposed on them for failing to send their children to government schools. The fathers, who are part of the Twelve Tribes Community in Klosterzimmern, Germany, were forced to spend between six and 16 days in what the group’s website translates as “coercive jail.”
One of the homeschooling fathers who was arrested wasted no time comparing the situation to Nazi Germany:
The ‘wrong’ of the members of the resistance in the Third Reich is being praised today, the members are being esteemed as heroes.
Strom ends his article with instructions for how to help:
Those wishing to help the cause of homeschooling in Germany can contact a legal defense organization there, Schulunterricht Zu Hause E.V.
So the members of a cult had flagrantly violated the law on several occasions and refused to accept both the penalty for that violation as well as obey the law after the fact. Strom from WorldNetDaily presents the situation as something Nazi-like, and then appeals to readers to send money to a specific organization: Schulunterricht Zu Hause.
We will get to this “legal defense organization” Schulunterricht Zu Hause shortly. But I want to point out what the end result of all this legal drama was. Through the efforts of Schulunterricht Zu Hause and another organization, the Twelve Tribes were actually successful. Because at the end of August 2006, the Twelve Tribes won permission to run a private school:
A group of fundamentalist Christians in Bavaria has won a long battle for the right to privately teach their children — without sex ed and lessons on evolution…The members of the fundamentalist Christian sect “Zwölf Stämme” (Twelve Tribes) have won a victory of sorts in their fight to educate their children outside of Germany’s state school system. Bavarian officials have agreed to let the group’s 32 school-aged children be taught by their own teachers in a private school.
According to German broadcaster DW, the Twelve Tribes receiving permission to run their own school — that omitted sex education and evolution science — was not merely a victory for the cult. It was, more importantly, a homeschool victory:
In Germany, there have been partial victories for such [homeschooling] parents. A group of fundamentalist Christian parents in Bavaria recently won the right to have their children taught by their own teachers in a private school subject to state oversight. That helped end a standoff between the religious group called the Twelve Tribes who don’t want sex education and evolution taught to their children. But the truce is temporary — the school is on a one-year trial.
Fast forward now to July 2013, two months before evidence of widespread child abuse surfaced. The Twelve Tribes had their education license — according to the German paper The Local — revoked due to “a lack of suitable teachers.” So not only did these children experience unfit teachers and thus likely educational neglect (as evidenced in July 2013), but also they were being systematically beaten (as evidenced in September of 2013). And note: this is because the Twelve Tribes successfully won permission to run their own private school, courtesy of the efforts of Schulunterricht Zu Hause and others.
The Paderborn Seven
The other set of 7 homeschooling families are from Paderborn, Westphalia. Their situation arose mere months after the Twelve Tribes situation. In January of 2005, we once again hear from Ron Strom from WorldNetDaily:
German Christians who choose to homeschool their children are coming under continued enforcement action by the government, with one group of families fearful they may lose custody of their kids. According to Richard Guenther, an American expatriate who lives in Germany, several families in the town of Paderborn currently “are being heavily persecuted for their faith.”
So in September of 2004 we have seven families from Bavaria. And now there are seven families from Paderborn. (We also are hearing about Richard Guenther, who will be important shortly. So remember his name. And keep remembering Schulunterricht Zu Hause.) Strom makes sure to connect these seven families from Paderborn to the seven families from the Twelve Tribes:
As WorldNetDaily reported [in other words, as Strom himself reported], Seven homeschooling fathers from the Twelve Tribes Community in Klosterzimmern spent several days in jail last fall for refusing to pay fines that were imposed on them for failing to send their children to government schools.
The Paderborn Seven became a news sensation among right-wing media and particularly among homeschool advocates. What had happened, according to a Germans news source on June 19, 2005, was that a community of fundamental Baptists decided to boycott public schools because of “sex education” as well as “anti-fundamentalist-Christian and corrupt education” practices in the schools. Mediation talks were first attempted by the school system, and then fines and penalties.
The German news source, too, compared the Paderborn Seven to the Twelve Tribes Seven, saying, ”Similarly violent clashes between authorities and fundamentalist Christians are so far known only from Bavaria.” In fact, the Paderborn Seven attempted to take a page from the Twelve Tribes book by similarly asking for permission to create their own private school. However, according to the Brussels Journal in February of 2007, this request “was rejected by the German authorities” because a court ruled the Baptists had shown “a stubborn contempt” for the state’s educational duties as well as the necessity of children’s development.
As soon as the Paderborn case blew up, HSLDA was on it. The same month it started, January of 2005, HSLDA sounded the alarm:
Seven homeschool families in Northwest Germany are being forced to enroll their children in public school…In order to help these seven homeschool families in Germany, we urge you to call or write to the German Embassy immediately.
HSLDA continued lobbying for the Paderborn Seven, encouraging thousands of American homeschoolers to call and email the Germany embassy. Also, in the May/June 2005 edition of their Court Report, HSLDA mentioned that another organization was similarly lobbying, and that both organizations’ lobbying efforts were working together:
In January, local school officials threatened to prosecute seven families for homeschooling in Paderborn County, Germany. Home School Legal Defense Association immediately sent out two e-lerts, which prompted thousands of phone calls and emails to the German Embassy… Simultaneously, Schulunterricht zu Hause e.V. (School Instruction at Home) attorneys Rich and Ingrid Guenther, who are also homeschooling parents, mediated with the authorities on behalf of the seven families… The combined force of the Guenthers’ influence and the flood of embassy contacts persuaded some officials to call for the legalization of homeschooling and delayed prosecution for nearly three months.
So persuasive was this two-pronged effort on behalf of HSLDA and Schulunterricht zu Hause — which means School Instruction at Home — that German officials were rethinking their positions. Also, prosecution of the Paderborn Seven was put on hold.
Notice, again, the involvement of Schulunterricht zu Hause and Richard Guenther — the latter, we now find out, is an attorney of the former. However, Guenther is not only an attorney. According to HSLDA in March 22, 2005, Rich Guenther is “the head of School Instruction at Home, a German homeschool advocacy group.”
In the midst of a media frenzy over the Paderborn case, American homeschoolers immediately conjured up Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Several homeschoolers have pointed to Mary Pride’s Practical Homeschooling magazine as the source for this imagery. On February 17, 2005, Practical Homeschooling made the (very historically false and simplifying) association between compulsory government education and the Third Reich: “One of Hitler and his buddies’ first acts on taking office was to establish the Reich Ministry of Education and give it control of all schools… Current German officials seem to have this same Nazi-inspired view.”
This Nazi imagery has been repeated time and time again. In the Brussels Journal, August 2005:
Home-schooling has been illegal in Germany since Adolf Hitler outlawed it in 1938 and ordered all children to be sent to state schools…As Hitler knew, Germans tend to obey orders unquestioningly.
Note, too, that the Brussels Journal also references the Twelve Tribes Seven:
Last year the police in Bavaria held several homeschooling fathers in coercive detention. They belonged to Christian groups who claim the right of parents to educate their own children, but they are not backed by the official (state funded) churches.
Bob Unruh from WorldNetDaily jumped on the Nazi bandwagon a year later, when talking about the Romeike family’s situation, calling it “a Nazi-like response from police.” Unruh also pointed to HSLDA’s involvement in the historically inaccurate Nazi comparison, saying: “[HSLDA] also noted that homeschooling has been illegal in Germany probably since 1938 when Hitler banned it.” Even the late Christopher Klicka from HSLDA played the inaccurate Nazi card in 2006.
(This is a side note, but a necessary one considering all these Nazi references: if your first reaction to something that the German people do that you do not agree with, is to conjure up imagery of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, that is a sign of xenophobia. If you start describing actions of particular people in terms of a whole group of people and those terms involve inherently negative stereotypes, then — yeah, you are a xenophobe. Germans like being compared to their own culture’s own worst nightmare as much as Americans do — in other words, not at all. So consider how you would like it if, every time the United States did something wrong, people constantly brought up the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It would become a sore subject very quickly, would it not?)
The Religious Right’s Global Intentions
To properly understand why HSLDA, an American lobbying organization, as well as American homeschoolers are involving themselves in a foreign country’s domestic policies, one must consider two distinct yet intimately connected phenomena: (1) the American Religious Right’s global intentions and (2) HSLDA’s global legal strategy. The former is the larger context in which the latter exists, and the latter explains HSDLA’s current international tactics.
Since the 1990s, the American Religious Right has become concerned about, and thus interested in, domestic courts and their decisions. While evangelicals had amassed significant political clout through the Republican Party, they had simultaneous lost significant clout through the court systems. Defeats in the courts, according to Legal Affairs in 2006, is what inspired the Religious Right in the 90′s to create public interest firms, including “Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice [ACLJ], and Liberty Counsel [LC], affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.” Important to the larger narrative here is that, in 1994, James Dobson of Focus on the Family as well as Bill Bright from Campus Crusade created the Alliance Defense Fund (or ADF), which recently was renamed the Alliance Defending Freedom. Dobson and Bright “formed the ADF as a counterweight to the ACLU.”
Through groups like the ACLJ, LC, and ADF, the Religious Right has won significant court battles. But in the early 2000s, a new threat was perceived: international law. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an antisodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy referenced the decriminalization of sodomy by both the British Parliament in 1967 as well as the European Court of Human Rights in 1981. 2 years later, Kennedy again referenced both foreign and international law (Roper v. Simmons).
As Legal Affairs pointed out in 2006, “It didn’t escape the notice of evangelical Christians that judges had looked to foreign courts in two cases that struck at the heart of their agenda.” Consequently, the Religious Right became highly concerned with international law. Organizations like ACLJ, LC, and ADF began the process of created international networks and foreign organizations in order to counter the perceived influence of foreign and international law on American law: first, to change foreign and international law so that it would reflect their own American values; and second, to change foreign law and international law so that, should it influence American law in the future, that influence would be in a way they considered good and righteous.
The result has been nothing less than the full-scale global export of American culture wars. As the American Prospect said in their 2007 article, “Tomorrow, the World,”
Over the past 10 years, American Christian conservatives, once focused on the U.S., have begun to take the culture wars global, developing networks of like-minded activists worldwide, delving into legal battles overseas, and taking with them the scorched-earth tactics that have worked so well in the United States. As the Christian right has expanded its base in America, it has secured more resources with which to venture abroad… Evangelical Christianity and other conservative religious movements gain force in Europe.
The American Prospect points to a number of organizations from the Religious Right that are engaging in the exporting of conservative Christian values, including the ADF. One organization that they highlight is the International Human Rights Group (IHRG), a Christian conservative organization run by a man named Joel Thornton. IHRG “runs many seminars for European lawyers” teaching them “how to bring their faith into politics,” and focus on “winning key cultural debates, from abortion to home schooling.”
What is very interesting about many of these groups is that they are often one and the same. In fact, many of them are nothing more than “shell organizations.” They exist to address one or two issues and then they are disbanded. For example: The ADF, according to Legal Affairs, “has financed locally based lawyers to intervene in a number of foreign cases.” One group of lawyers that the Allied Defense Fund funded was the “European Defense Fund” (EDF), which no longer exists. The EDF was created for one and only one purpose:
With ADF funding, lawyers from a new allied organization, the European Defense Fund, are advising German Christian parents who home school their children but fear they will be prosecuted for failing to send them to school, as Germany’s laws require they do.
So EDF was funded by ADF to defend German homeschoolers — though it also maybe had some project involving the Olympics, according to their now-defunct website. And who was the founder? According to Rome News-Tribute on March 11, 2007, the founder was an American attorney from Rome, Georgia: Joel Thornton. Thornton, former chief of staff for Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, was “founder of the former European Defense Fund.” However, the EDF was “recently renamed the International Human Rights Group.” So EDF and IHRG are the same thing: an ADF-funded organization led by Joel Thornton to defend German homeschoolers. And if you look at IHRG’s original website, the organization dealt with one and only one issue: German homeschooling. (Their current website is similarly sparse.) And not only is EDF/IHRG “ADF-funded,” it really just is an extension of ADF. Even HSLDA, as an ally of ADF, referred in 2008 to Thornton’s efforts as efforts from “the Alliance Defense Fund.”
So part of the Religious Right’s global strategy of influencing and changing foreign and international law has specifically involved homeschooling. According to the Christian Science Monitor in 2007, this is because German homeschoolers’ plights have “struck a chord with US evangelicals, who often see home-schooling as a way to instill Christian values.” This had led Americans to rush to their aid, “providing legal counsel and lobbying the German parliament.” This is, of course, exactly what the Religious Right is hoping for. They want American Christians and homeschoolers to fight these cultural wars for them.
Through ADF’s efforts and Thornton’s work as both the EDF and IHRG, the American Religious Right is impacting Germany politics, the goal being ”to ward off precedents that might someday be used against the ADF’s causes in American courts.” As the American Prospect said, “In Germany, Thornton’s International Human Rights Group” (as well as other allies, which we will talk about shortly) “have taken up more than a dozen court cases dealing with home schooling.” That is actually a conservative estimate. The Christian Science Monitor has said IHRG “has had a hand in more than 40 German home-schooling cases.”
All in all, Thornton believes he has been extraordinarily successful through IHRG and EDF. So successful, in fact, that he and other U.S. culture warriors are mapping out the future and figuring out where next to export American-style culture wars to. Once Europe is conquered, where next? Well, the Middle East, actually:
…It’s all a long way from 10 years ago, when Thornton remembers finding almost no one in Europe who understood how to win the culture wars. Now, the Christian right has done well enough in the Old World that it is looking for new, even less hospitable lands. “The next logical place for us is the Middle East, and we’ll also be able to have an impact,” says Sekulow of the European Center for Law and Justice. “We will succeed there, too.”
HSLDA’s Global Intentions
Just as the Religious Right has set its sight on foreign and international law since the 1990s, so, too, has HSLDA. In fact, everything that you are seeing and hearing about regarding the current situation with the Romeike family is part of a larger, premeditated plan of action that HSLDA came up with over a decade ago. I do not propose that as a conspiracy theory. Rather, this very fact was laid out in detail by HSLDA’s Michael Donnelly three years ago, in the March/April 2010 edition of Court Report.
In that Court Report, Donnelly begins with the January 26, 2010 decision by a U.S. immigration judge to grant the Romeike family asylum due to “persecution for homeschooling.” Donnelly compares German homeschoolers to “the courageous English families who fled to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620.” The granting of asylum (later overturned) was a significant legal precedent at the time. As Donnelly points out, this was “the first case ever to recognize homeschooling as a reason for granting asylum.”
While HSLDA and Donnelly were ecstatic for the Romeike family, they were more ecstatic about something else: that their political strategy seemed to have payed off. That judge’s decision was the Golden Egg of HSLDA’s decade-long plan to get homeschooling established as a fundamental and human right — not just to shake up Germany’s laws, but more importantly — as in the case of the Religious Right’s international efforts in general — to influence U.S. law. I am not making this up. This is what Donnelly himself said: “The Romeikes’ asylum victory is the culmination of years of groundwork to protect homeschooling.”
Years of groundwork for what? Donnelly explains:
Home School Legal Defense Association has been tracking the plight of German homeschoolers for years. In the early 1990s, then–HSLDA President Michael Farris became aware of the struggles homeschooling families were facing in several European countries during his travels on behalf of Christian Solidarity International.
Over the next decade or so, Farris and the late Christopher Klicka would visit Germany frequently and champion German homeschoolers. As early as September of 2000, the Washington Post wrote an article entitled, “Home-school movement goes global.” The Post highlighted how American homeschoolers protested Germany’s homeschooling policies. How HSLDA encouraged American homeschoolers to ”[barrage] the German Embassy with e-mail, letters and phone calls.” HSLDA itself bragged in 2000 about how “U.S. home-school families began an aggressive campaign…directed at the German Embassy in Washington, which resulted in thousands of phone calls, more than 800 e-mail messages and 400 letters urging the German government to make home schooling legal.”
“Our goal,” said HSLDA’s Christopher Kilicka, “is legalization of home schooling throughout Germany.”
But HSLDA needed more than phone and internet bullying to be successful. According to Donnelly, “a comprehensive strategy was needed.” This was needed less for Germany’s own sake but more for international reasons: “if Germany could continue to get away with persecuting homeschoolers, other countries might follow its lead.” Which led HSLDA to think personally: “such a trend may not stay on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Donnelly explains that, in looking at losses homeschoolers experienced in Germany, prospects were not promising. Germany’s supreme courts rejected homeschoolers’ claims. In fact, the courts said — and I find this fascinating — that homeschooling (rather than forbidding homeschooling — “was an abuse of parental rights.” So in 2007, Michael Farris and Mike Donnelly met with Germany homeschool advocates — and more importantly, attorneys from Schuzh. Schuzh is the shortened name of the group I mentioned earlier: Schulunterricht zu Hause, or School Instruction at Home. Together, HSLDA and Schulunterricht zu Hause ”laid out a new three-part strategy of legal defense, humanitarian assistance, and political influence.”
Key to this strategy, Donnelly says, was creating a Marxist-like “war of position,” or an inversion of German values. Their strategy required a page from Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony playbook: “changing public opinion.” Since there were hardly any homeschoolers in Germany — the latest numbers are approximately 400 families total — HSLDA realized there was no way they could “exert any kind of political influence.”
So they decided to engage in political theater — an international act of high performance art.
HSLDA’s director of litigation “suggested considering a political asylum case.” HSLDA’s first opportunity to do so was in 2006, when they agreed to help a Germany family “get to Canada and file a claim for refugee status.” However, later that year, Uwe and Hanne Romeike fell into HSLDA’s lap. In October of 2006, the Romeike children were taken from their family by German police and placed into a state-approved school.
At the time, Jörg Großelümern (the director of Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit) expressed support for the family: “The Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit strongly empathises with the Romeike family, whom many of us know personally to be an intact and conscience-driven family.” (Interesting side note, considering it was Jörg Großelümern who brought the recent Twelve Tribes issue to Michael Farris’ attention: there is a rumor, which I honestly cannot find verification of, that the Romeike family — HSLDA’s token German homeschoolers — is affiliated with the Twelve Tribes. That would certainly be a fascinating backstory.)
During a homeschool conference in Germany, Donnelly told Romeike that if his family would leave Germany for the U.S., “HSLDA would support [them] in a claim for political asylum.” After selling one of his pianos to fund the trip (because apparently HSLDA could not afford it?), Uwe Romeike moved his family to the U.S. in August 2008. Note that the Romeikes have been in the U.S. since 2008. That is how long HSLDA’s overarching international plan has been in motion, a plan that — according to Donnelly — was aiming for one thing:
“To be able to say that homeschooling is a human right.”
HSLDA and Schulunterricht zu Hause
In addition to overwhelming German embassies with phone calls and emails as well as employing a political asylum case as an Gramscian exercise, HSLDA’s international strategy also required legal “boots on the ground” in Germany. So in August of 2000, Christopher Klicka and HSLDA created a legal defense organization for homeschoolers in Germany. As Crosswalk reported on January 30, 2005, HSLDA “started a legal organization for home schoolers in Germany called Schulunterricht zu Hause, or ‘School Instruction at Home.’” It is also known as “Schuzh.”
Schulunterricht zu Hause was the culmination of efforts by the late HSLDA attorney Christopher Klicka, who — according to the Washignton Post in 2000 — “had contact with home educators in 25 nations around the world over the past couple of years.” In October of 2001, Klicka talked about the organization in a letter to the Brazillian Embassy:
I worked to help network the Germans lawyers and home schoolers and we were able to establish a national home school organization called School Instruction at Home in that country.
The person in charge of Schulunterricht zu Hause as early as 2002 was Richard Guenther. According to HSLDA itself, Guenther’s work through the HSLDA-created organization in Germany was sponsored by “the generosity of American homeschoolers.” HSLDA repeatedly asked for American homeschoolers to financially support Guenther and his organization. This is from 2004:
HSLDA is asking for families to consider donating financial support for the cause of freedom in Germany. You can send donations to the Home School Foundation, earmarked for German homeschoolers. Please go to http://www.hslda.org/elink.asp?ID=1211 . We will send the donations on to Schulunterricht zu Hause.
Encouraged by HSLDA, American homeschoolers donated $100,000 to the organization. Furthermore, not only did HSLDA create the organization, it was intimately involved, as Christopher Klicka was on the board. HSLDA also provided the initial funds. According to a January 4, 2006 article by Education Week entitled, “U.S. Home Schoolers Push Movement Around the World,”
The legal-defense association [HSLDA] taps into its fund for international support — about $15,000 a year — to subsidize start-ups of legal organizations. Other times, Mr. Klicka raises money from American home-schooling parents to support their counterparts overseas… One leader of [Germany’s] homeschooling movement is Richard Guenther, an evangelical Christian and the director of a legal-defense organization founded five years ago. Mr. Klicka organized American home schoolers to raise $100,000 for the organization, and he serves on its board.
Today, HSLDA’s International page for Germany has two organizations officially listed: Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit (led by Jörg Großelümern) and Schulunterricht zu Hause e.V. (formerly led by Richard Guenther, and currently lead by Armin Eckermann).
So HSLDA created Schulunterricht zu Hause in 2000, using member dues to fund its start-up. Then HSLDA rallied American homeschoolers to raise $100,000 for the organization. And HSLDA’s Klicka served on its board. What did Schulunterricht zu Hause do with that American support and money?
With that question, we come full circle to the Twelve Tribes.
HSLDA, ADF, and the Twelve Tribes
I have already pointed out that both the Religious Right in general as well as HSLDA specifically have invested in the German homeschool movement, the former through ADF (and consequently EDF and IHRG) and the latter through Schulunterricht zu Hause. What I should point out first is that these two organizations are actually not that distinct.
The director of HSLDA’s Schulunterricht zu Hause was Richard Guenther.
But Richard Guenther was also the “Director of European Operations” for the ADF’s International Human Rights Group.
So both of these American organizations that rallied American Christians and homeschoolers for “German homeschooling freedoms” had the exact same person in leadership. This ought not be surprising, since IHRG’s Joel Thornton was a huge fan of Christopher Klicka and HSLDA. In fact, in 2000, right around the time when HSLDA was beginning their international strategy as was ADF, Thornton said in his eulogy of Klicka that he “spent time with Chris…in the ACLJ’s offices at Regent University. Chris was there for the national convention, and he was there to see what could be done to help the home school families of Germany.” (By the way, even Kevin Swanson supported the German homeschool movement and Richard Guenther’s role in it, exclaiming that, “Civilization is dying in Europe.”)
And what did that result in? According to the Christian Science Monitor in 2007,
IHRG and its German ally, Schuzh, have won several cases and scored some coups at the negotiating table. Take, for instance, the case of the Twelve Tribes, a controversial evangelical movement that was founded in the US. Followers live in small, communal groups largely cut off from society. Until last August, a pocket of Twelve Tribes disciples in Bavaria had been locked in a struggle to keep their children out of public schools… IHRG and Schuzh were able to persuade the Bavarian ministry of education to allow the group to set up its own school.
Also, from the American Prospect:
Thornton’s group and [Schulunterricht zu Hause] helped get the German state of Bavaria to allow disciples of Twelve Tribes, a controversial American evangelical group called a cult by some of its ex-members, to set up its own school.
Both ADF and HSLDA’s Schulunterricht zu Hause were the organizations that enabled the Twelve Tribes — the cult that just got busted for cold and systematic child abuse — to win permission to keep their kids isolated from the rest of the world. In fact, mere months after the Twelve Tribes were first prosecuted by violating German law, HSLDA asked American homeschoolers to donate to Schulunterricht zu Hause:
Please continue to support School Instruction At Home, which HSLDA helped to establish in Germany… Please consider donating to School Instruction at Home… Please go to http://www.hslda.org/elink.asp?ID=1211 to make a tax-deductible gift to the organization…
Christopher J. Klicka HSLDA Senior Counsel
Not only did HSLDA and ADF support, enable, and fund the Twelve Tribes through the efforts and money of American Christians and homeschoolers, HSLDA partnered with the cult to lobby German embassies. According to Barbara Smith’s Home Education Foundation in New Zealand in January of 2005,
Home educators in Bavaria, the Twelve Tribes Community, have been fined for not sending their children to school…Richard Guenther, an American ex- patriate who lives in Germany and is helping the Twelve Tribes Families, says, “The claim of the parents is that the local school is raising the children to be promiscuous and the girls prostitutes.”…The American Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and the Twelve Tribes Community are both encouraging home educators everywhere to email the German authorities…
Side Note About Homeschool Politics
Richard Guenther was a key player in the German homeschooling movement since the early 2000s. After HSLDA created Schulunterricht zu Hause, he was the director. He was also appointed Director of European Operations of the IHRG/EDF by the ADF. He has been referred to as “the HSLDA of Germany” as well as “the Lafayette of German homeschooling.”
So, you might be wondering, why have you not heard about him in the last few years?
Well, Richard Guenther is the pseudonymous “Mr. Smith,” who has authored many articles for HSisLegal.com, arguing in recent years that — no joke — HSLDA has singlehandedly destroyed the German homeschool movement through sectarian, patriocentric politics. A chronological timeline of the HSLDA/Guenther debacle — which apparently involved tensions with Homeschooling Pillar Gregg Harris and Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips — can be read here. Note, too, that Richard Guenther’s son, Hans, was interviewed by Gregg Harris’ sons Brett and Alex on September 28, 2005 on their Rebelution blog. They were “thrilled with the quality of his answers.” It seems the children’s parents were not as keen about each other.
Enabling and Funding Child Abuse
Placing the recent revelations about the Twelve Tribes cult into this historical context changes the shape and color of how both Jörg Großelümern and Michael Farris initially responded to the German police raid. This cult is not some random group that appeared on the headlines, thereby excusing the homeschool advocates’ unfortunate assessments of what happened. Rather, this cult is one of the most prominent examples of the Religious Right and HSLDA’s international strategy for defending homeschooling freedoms abroad.
On account of the efforts by ADF and HSLDA’s German organization, the Twelve Tribes won the right to continue to keep their children isolated from the rest of the world. This was an extraordinarily important case, as it would lay the groundwork for the next case a few months later, involving the Paderborn Seven. What ADF and HSLDA did for the Twelve Tribes was both directly and indirectly funded by American Christians and homeschoolers, who were led to believe that their money and time would be used to support healthy families and their right to direct their children’s education.
Yet ADF and HSLDA chose to defend a cult. One can say, “We didn’t know what was happening behind the curtain” all one wants to, but that does not explain why they did not take the time to figure that out (which seems to be a really important why, considering HSLDA previously called a man who kept children in cages a “hero”). It does not justify the fact that they used over $100,000 of American money and the dues of their members to create Schulunterricht zu Hause which used that money and support to defend a cult of child abusers. Because of ADF and HSLDA’s tinkering in German affairs, the children of the Twelve Tribes have lived for almost a decade in near-isolation.
The children of the Twelve Tribes suffered horrifying abuse until last week because American dollars enabled and funded that abuse.
“My sources were wrong,” Michael Farris said.
How many other sources of yours have been wrong, Mr. Farris? And how many other children have suffered because of them?
- Alternative Narratives On Germany And Homeschooling: An Introduction (homeschoolersanonymous.wordpress.com)
- A Quick and Dirty Primer on HSLDA (homeschoolersanonymous.wordpress.com)
- The Twelve Tribes, Child Abuse, and Michael Farris (homeschoolersanonymous.wordpress.com)
- How American Homeschoolers Enabled and Funded German Child Abuse: The Real Story Behind the Religious Right and the Twelve Tribes (learningcoachmama.wordpress.com)
- How American Homeschoolers Enabled and Funded German Child Abuse: The Real Story Behind the Religious Right and the Twelve Tribes (leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com)