Voters to decide the fate of faith in Berlin schools
Controversial referendum today determines if students get the option to study ethics or religion.
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But in a city that sociologist Peter Berger once called "the world capital of modern atheism," a surprisingly robust grass-roots Pro-Reli movement by churches is challenging the traditional ethics classes that they say are poor substitutes for the religion teaching offered to other German pupils.
The churches seem to have captured a moment – along with a whopping 256,000 signatures for a referendum on the topic. They flooded streets with posters asking for a "free choice between ethics and religion." The result is a hot battle over values and city identity.
Today, Berliners are voting on whether to keep the required ethics class or broaden the curriculum to include a required class on a religion – Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and others. Ethics is one of the options.
"There is nothing wrong with ethics classes, if they are neutral," says Christoph Lehmann, a devout Catholic and lawyer who started the Pro-Reli cause at his living room table a year ago. "But religious tradition is about creating a standpoint in life, and we feel the ethics class doesn't do this as well."
At the forefront of the debate is the issue of integrating Muslims. Berlin now has more than 200,000 Muslim students – almost half the student body in some districts. Exposing Muslim children to the Koran from teachers accredited through the state is seen by many Berliners as a check on extreme readings of Islam; and this is a key selling point for the pro-religion cause.
"In a broader perspective, looking 20 years ahead, what's most important is the issue of Muslims," says Ralf Meister, a Pro-Reli advocate and general superintendent of the Lutheran Church in Berlin. "We don't solve a single problem with Muslims through the ethics class. We need a place where Muslims can learn some established facts about their religion."
Indeed, the falling apple for the ethics class was a 2005 "honor killing" of a Turkish woman that shocked this city. Following the murder, ethics classes became a required part of the curriculum.
For many churchgoers, however, the cure was seen as worse than the problem. Complaints arose that in a school day already taxing young minds, adding the ethics course eroded support and time for what had been a system of voluntary religion classes. Protestant and Catholic parents, mostly from the west side of the city, said ethics was slanted and undercut or trivialized faith traditions.
The Berlin debate blurs traditional left-right lines: Some theologians support ethics, while some leading Social Democrats back religion.
The Pro-Ethik camp, as it is known, sees its program as a responsible way to teach citizenship and democracy, while also promoting dialogue among a diverse student body in something that's more subjective than math or science.