Berliners choose ethics over religion in classrooms

Slightly more than 51 percent of Berliners said ‘no’ to a measure to give students an option to study the religion of their choosing.

PARIS – God may be “back,” as a bestseller puts it. But Berlin voters have little faith that the Almighty belongs in their schools.

Slightly more than 51 percent of Berliners said ‘no’ to a measure to give students an option to study the religion of their choosing. The defeat comes despite support by such figures as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leading Protestant bishops, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Instead, Berliners opted to keep a mandatory ethics course, initiated in 2006, after a so-called “honor killing” of a Turkish woman in the city caused an outcry over the rise of “foreign” beliefs and actions.

If it had passed, the April 26 referendum, which took on the tenor and tenacity of a culture war in Berlin, would have accorded city students the same access to religion classes that other German students have. It set off a spirited – even vitriolic – debate over whether ethics, secular values, and citizenship were more advisable in public schools than a deeper study of faith traditions, the Ten Commandments, or the Koran.

Indeed, the rise of Muslim students in Berlin – and an Islam seen here as varying widely in tone from mosque to mosque – helped anchor the “Pro Reli” grassroots movement among Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim leaders.

They argued that a mandated religion or ethics class (the measure would have allowed a choice) would force schools to take religion and ethics seriously, and license teachers committed to bring out traditions of tolerance and amity in respective faiths.

“The issue was complicated, and maybe we should have made it easier,” says Christoph Lehmann, organizer of the group, “Pro Reli.”

“But for weeks and weeks we had a discussion about the role of faith in our society. Some people discussed religion for the first time in their lives. So it was a success, for that reason,” he concludes.

The issue caught fire last fall, when the Pro Reli advocates found tens of thousands of Berliners eager to sign their petitions. In all, they secured 256,000 signatures. The support was described as astonishing for a city long called a fount for religious skepticism.

In fact, were the measure to have gone on the ballot this June along with the European elections, the outcome would been different, Mr. Lehmann argues. Instead, the Senate in Berlin scheduled the referendum as a single vote on April 26. For it pass, by law, would require 25 percent or 610,000 Berliners to vote “yes.” As it was, only 22 percent, or about 550,000, turned out to vote.

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