Furor in Germany Over Teaching Less About God

Post-reunification religion course in schools angers churches

When children here in the German state of Brandenburg go back to school in a few weeks, many of them will start in on a controversial new religion course that has been condemned as the ultimate "de-Christianization" of eastern Germany, something the Communists always wanted.

Critics are upset that the new course, which replaces mandatory traditional religious education, will merely teach about religion from a nondenominational point of view.

The new course faces a challenge in the constitutional high court. But the program's proponents, many of them church people, defend the new course as appropriate to a pluralistic society, especially one where four decades of state-promoted atheism in the former East Germany have left the majority alienated from the churches.

The balance between church and state is delicate in many places around the world. Societies are struggling with how state institutions can or should inculcate moral and ethical values while accommodating genuine freedom of religion.

Unlike the situation in the United States, where the Constitution requires separation between church and state, German Basic Law requires state-supported schools to provide specific religious instruction given by church-certified catechists, generally either Roman Catholic or Lutheran. The required religious course typically fills a couple of hours in a 30-hour school week, although there is an opt-out clause.

It was different in the former East Germany, where Marxist-oriented civics courses were part of the curriculum. Those were abolished in short order at reunification in 1990. But the question remained: How were the former East German states, where less than 30 percent of the people identify themselves as Christians, to respond to the constitutional requirement for religious instruction?

Four of the five states - Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania - now offer a choice between traditional religious instruction as in western Germany, or a nonreligious ethics course.

But Brandenburg came up with something different: an integrated course called "Lifestyles, Ethics, and Religion," known as LER.

Hartmut Kienel, director of the educational policy department of Brandenburg's education ministry, acknowledges the validity of some of the church criticism; the secular eastern German educators have not always been comfortable with the idea of religion, he concedes. But he describes how one teacher, part of a pilot program testing the new course, took her class on a "field trip" to a church - an alien place to most of them. "They met with the pastor, who explained what the organ was, what the baptismal font was, what the cross was. And I think this is a terrific development."

The Brandenburg situation illustrates many concerns, shared by other societies, regarding the public teaching of moral and ethical values. It also reflects some trends that are more specifically German:

*The efforts of the two established churches, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, to hold their ground at a time of widely perceived "deinstitutionalization" of society, and a time when hikes in church taxes are causing many to abandon church membership.

*The way that individual states within Germany's federal republic sometimes seek to go their own way - as Bavaria has just done in passing abortion laws more restrictive than current federal law.

*The continuing efforts needed to close the gap between east and west in Germany nearly six years after reunification became official.

Marianne Birthler, a Green party politician who in her earlier role as Brandenburg education minister helped develop LER, says, "We needed something to cover our deficits [regarding religious education]. The clich is to say that our children don't know why we celebrate Christmas, but it's more than that, it's questions of life, death, love, suffering."

Marxist civics classes were no help here. And for so many eastern German children, Ms. Birthler says, these subjects were "excluded"; there was no way to talk about them.

Her other argument for LER is that it is an appropriate way, in a secular, pluralistic society, to expose children to other faiths and teach respect for them.

"I argue for this on the basis of my own commitment as a Christian," Birthler says.

LER was tested on a pilot basis for three years, originally with the involvement of the Lutheran church. In September the course will be introduced in schools throughout the state, starting with seventh-graders, as trained teachers become available to fill the positions.

The Lutheran bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg, Wolfgang Huber, sees it differently: Learning "about" religion isn't the same as religious instruction, he protests. LER entrusts the state, rather than church teachers, with the role of imparting values, and this is unacceptable, he says.

One of the most impassioned attacks on LER came during a debate in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of the German parliament. Rainer Eppelman, a minister-activist who helped bring down East Germany and now sits in the Bundestag, urged Brandenburg: "Don't legalize, after the fact, the de-Christianization that the Communist Party always wanted" for eastern Germany.

However emotionally loaded the whole issue is, the Lutheran and Catholic churches are raising an extremely technical issue to block LER.

The constitutional requirement for religious instruction has an escape hatch known as the Bremen clause: In those states where another law governing religious instruction was in effect on Jan. 1, 1949, schools need not provide required religious instruction.

The Brandenburgers, with their Social Democratic state government, are invoking the Bremen clause to let them offer LER instead of sectarian religious instruction. After all, they argue, on Jan. 1, 1949, they were not under the West German Basic Law, they were part of East Germany.

Their opponents counter that today's Brandenburg came into being only in 1990, at reunification. The Brandenburgers can't claim that a state that didn't even exist in 1949 was under another law in 1949.

Since the high court is not handling the case on an expedited basis, there may not be a ruling until next year.

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