Religious Icons in Romanian Schools: Text and Context

Article excerpt

Public discourse on religious matters is a sensitive issue in Romania. It has raised heated debates for at least two reasons: on the one hand, the repressive policy of the Communist regime concerning religion created a strong boomerang-effect, a religious renaissance after 1989; on the other hand, there is a deep cleavage between the "two Romanias:" the urban and the rural, the modernized and the traditionalist, the liberal and the conservative. Religion still serves as a major cultural marker of national identity, and the church is one of the most trusted institutions in Romania. We are exploring the hypothesis that the 2006-2007 religious icon scandal in Romania is a typical example of heated public debate in a transitional society.

Key Words:

religious symbols, debate, state neutrality, democracy, Romania

Factual background: the main events that stirred the debate on religious icons

On June 11, 2008, the Romanian Supreme Court's decision concerning the right to display religious symbols in schools across Romania put an end to the legal side of a heated public debate. The dispute was sparked by a parent's protest letter in August 2006 against the practice of displaying religious icons in his daughter's school, and reached its peak between November 2006 and January 2007. Our empirical analysis is focused on this time frame.

In December 2006, the Romanian media was bombarded by headlines such as: "The war of icons"1, "The scandal of icons exiled from schools"2, "The trial of icons - part of a plan to destroy faith"3, "The renaissance of iconoclasm, the first step to the pursuit of Christianity in Romania"4. A web page was also created: "Save children's icons - against the discrimination of the majority"5. The topic was mainstreamed by the Romanian media during 2007.

What happened? In August 2006, Emil Moise, a philosophy teacher from the Romanian town Buzau, submitted a request to the National Council for Combating Discrimination, requesting:

- the withdrawal of religious symbols from the classrooms and corridors of his daughter's high school;

- the withdrawal of religious symbols from all public schools in Romania.

He argued that the display of religious symbols on the walls of public schools was discriminating against atheists, agnostics, indifferentists or persons belonging to denominations other than those represented by these symbols. The National Council for Combating Discrimination did not adopt a resolution on the first request, for the Court had already rejected the teacher's position on the trial preceding the request.

As for the second point, The National Council for Combating Discrimination decided to recommend the Ministry of Education and Research that they elaborate and implement an internal rule that would regulate the presence of religious symbols in public schools. This rule should rely on several principles:

- ensuring the equal practise of the right to education and equal access to culture

- respecting the parents' right to assure their children the education befitting their religious and philosophical beliefs

- respecting the lay character of the state and the autonomy of denominations

- ensuring the free choice of religion, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of beliefs for all children equally

- displaying religious symbols only during religion classes or in spaces intended for the teaching of religion6.

This decision triggered a strong reaction from the opposite party. A few days later, on November 28, 2006, the representatives of several denominations (the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Evangelical, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Armenian communities) gathered in The Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Romanian Churches and decided to defend the display of religious symbols in public places as the expression of religious freedom. The Muslim and Jewish communities' representatives joined in later. …