Germans Give High Court A Cross to Bear After Rulings

Rulings on classroom crucifixes, abortion, spies raise disrespect for court

FIRST comes a legislative storm over abortion. Then there's a controversy over a high court ruling restricting religion's role in the classroom. Sounds like the United States in campaign mode, right? Wrong. It's Germany. This has been the summer of furious debate in Germany on some of the most complicated social issues facing Western societies. And so far, the decisions taken here have only fueled the angry rhetoric. Most major German institutions - including the judiciary, government, the church, and the press - are embroiled in the issues. Defining the limits on matters of conscience is far more problematic in Germany than in America. The line separating church and state is fuzzier here, and the postwar legacy of political division in Germany hasn't been overcome. The biggest social furor this summer erupted in mid-August, when the German Constitutional Court struck down a law in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic state of Bavaria mandating that a crucifix hang in public school classrooms. (Taking the country as a whole, more Germans are Protestant.) The ruling came after a suit was brought by a Bavarian couple with three children who objected to the crucifixes in the classrooms. Freedom of religion... Citing freedom of religion and conscience provisions enshrined in Germany's Basic Law, the high court ruled that Bavaria had no right to force pupils ''to learn under the cross.'' The ruling, however, didn't order the removal of crucifixes. Instead, it stipulated that unanimous parental consent was required for a cross to hang in a classroom. Given Germany's bout with Naziism, court rulings in the postwar era have usually been accepted with muted respect. But conservative politicians criticized the court's crucifix decision. Chancellor Helmut Kohl called the decision ''unfathomable'' and suggested it would undermine German cultural values. Joachim Hoerster, another conservative politician, described it as a case of ''blackmail'' of the majority by the minority. Meanwhile, the Catholic bishop of Munich, Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, called on Bavarian Catholics to ignore the ruling. ''Insist on your right, and you will not err,'' he said. The court justice who wrote the decision has told critics to relax. ''Western civilization will not fall as a result of this decision,'' Justice Johann Friedrich Henschel said in an interview with Stern magazine. But on Aug. 21, the defiant Bavarian premier, Edmund Stoiber, vowed in the mass-circulation daily Bild to keep crucifixes in classrooms. The Catholic Church called a mass rally Sept. 23 under the banner ''the cross is here to stay.'' Meanwhile, an association of German judges recently expressed alarm that resistance to the ruling could erode faith in the judiciary and undermine the constitutional order. The ruling is all the more controversial because the distinction between church and state is not as sharply defined in Germany as in the US. The government, for example, gathers a ''church tax'' from believers. Revenue from the levy subsidizes the three prominent faiths in Germany; Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. The crucifix controversy came just as a row over abortion rights had just begun to fade. Abortion has been a divisive issue since 1990s reunification because of vast discrepancies in the practices of the former East and West Germanys. In the formerly communist east, abortion had been state-funded and widely available, whereas it was far more restricted in the west. In June, the German parliament passed a law that it hoped would reconcile eastern and western practices. But the compromise has been roundly criticized as too restrictive by many east German women, while some westerners have said the legislation is too permissive. The court also aroused ire among west Germans by issuing an opinion earlier this summer that essentially barred prosecution of spies for the former East Germany. Although the recent rulings may be judicially sound, a majority of the German public appears to disagree with the court. A survey by Spiegel magazine showed 74 percent disagreed with the crucifix mandate. The end result of the summer of controversies may be that popular respect for the judiciary is eroded. ''The growing criticism should make the Constitutional Court think,'' said an editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily. ''It is about to lose its standing as an accepted factor of social arbitration.'' ...and the press The rulings have also raised concern about freedom of the press in Germany. A leading German media mogul, Leo Kirch, a Bavaria native, not only attacked the Constitutional Court for its decision, but he also demanded an editorial reshuffle at a newspaper, in which he owns a minority share, for supporting the judicial opinion. Specifically, Mr. Kirch sought the ouster of Thomas Loffelholz, editor of the leading conservative daily Die Welt. ''It's hair-raising that a newspaper in our publishing house defended the ruling,'' said Kirch, who may be best described as a cross between Ted Turner and the late Howard Hughes. Die Welt's board of directors did not comply with Kirch's demand, but he has vowed to reshape Die Welt's editorial staff.

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