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.
"Kids from different origins should not be divided into different religions and into different classes," says Gerhard Weil, spokesman for Pro-Ethik. "We find it is better if all children can discuss ethical problems together."
One Pro-Reli parent, Julia Sebastian, says ethics courses vary with the teacher, but that the nod to religion in them sometimes boils down to students doing show-and-tell: "Muslim seventh-graders would bring a prayer carpet. Russian Orthodox kids brought a crucifix. And they are on the spot to explain their religion in front of the others. It's ridiculous."
One Catholic father is glad for religious diversity in ethics teaching but says, "My son knows more about Ramadan than Lent."
Public school religion classes here don't advocate the practice or "exercise" of a particular faith. They include deeper instruction in traditions and texts – but no prayers, services, or proselytizing. Religion advocates say a mandated class will bring better and more sympathetic teaching, since churches, mosques, and temples will have a say in the faith quotient of those teaching their tradition.
How well state-licensed teachers of religion would do with a plethora of minority faiths that diverge from the mainstream is largely unanswered by Pro-Reli circles. It is one reason the idea would probably cause strife in a diverse religious nation like the US, a country with more than a hundred Protestant sects and a First Amendment tradition of church-state separation.
In Berlin, the aims of Pro-Reli are more general. "Can religious education promote or hinder tolerance?" asks Mr. Meister, the Lutheran leader. "The debate is so emotional because it is getting to these basic questions and fears. We think a real encounter with religion can promote tolerance."
Pro-Reli organizers started small, with street petitions outside churches. The enthusiastic response stunned them: At one point, there were crowds of 20,000 in a single day. Movement leader Lehmann says it proves that "Berliners aren't hard-core atheists just because they don't declare themselves churchgoers."
Pro-Reli has been lionized by celebrities, bishops, and TV personalities, causing some in the ethics camp to call it a fad. Attack ads funded by the Pro-Ethik camp charge that the referendum could result in "mandatory" religion and raise the specter of church prelate hordes trying to snare young minds. Lehmann calls the ads unfair. The issue, he says, is mandatory choice (a course in religion or ethics) versus compulsory ethics.
Last month, Pro-Reli took an unexpected body blow from the Senate in Berlin, which leans toward keeping ethics. Originally, the vote on the referendum was scheduled for early June, along with European parliamentary elections – a concurrence that would no doubt bring more people to the polls. The Senate shifted the referendum to a single-issue vote on April 26.
Whether or not that move is ethical, it is certainly political: For the measure to pass, one-quarter of Berlin's voting population (600,000 out of 2.4 million) must feel strongly enough about religion in schools to come out and cast a "yes" ballot.