Church/state Separation in Germany - for Now This Wall Stays Up

Article excerpt

In a period when church/state separation in the United States is being eroded, it is heartening to read of a landmark church and state case in another country where the highest court acts on principle and hands down an unpopular decision. On August 10, 1995, the German Federal Constitutional Court made public its ruling striking down a provision of the Bavarian State Educational Code that called for the display of a crucifix in every public school classroom. In a country written off by American Christian fundamentalist missionaries as hopelessly post-Christian, this decision caused a furor.

In 1987, six-year-old Elina Seler was enrolled by her parents for her first day of school in Schwandorf, northern Bavaria. The Selers are adherents of Rudolf Steiner's spiritualistic philosophy, "Anthroposophy," and Elina had not been raised on Catholic lore as Bavarian children normally are. Mr. Seler described Elina's first day of school this way: "My daughter was forced to look up at an eighty centimeter high naked, blood encrusted dead man that hung right in her face."

Having never become desensitized to the gory imagery of the Crucifixion, little Elina was terrified. Mr. Seler complained about the crucifix, as twenty or so other Bavarian parents have done every year. Instead of issuing the usual flat refusal, the school offered to substitute a plain, Protestant-style cross with no corpus for the crucifix in Elina's classroom. The Selers took all three of their children out of school in protest, relenting only when the authorities threatened to prosecute them for truancy. Their legal complaint challenging the crucifix was decided against them in the Bavarian state courts in 1991. They appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court.

The Federal Constitutional Court held that "the introduction of a cross or crucifix into the classrooms of a compulsory-attendance nonparochial school violates Article 4 Section 1 of the Basic Law."(1) The court went on to explain that the essence of the violation consists of forcing an individual to have contact with the devotional paraphernalia of another religion, and implied that all the crucifixes in public school classrooms in Bavaria would have to be taken down. The decision also spoke of protection of minorities.

The decision prompted a torrent of extravagant rhetoric - a veritable field day for political posturing - on the part of conservative political leaders. They seemed unable to understand how the crucifix could signify something banefully different to some people than it signifies to them. Chancellor Helmut Kohl - also chairman of the ruling Christian Democratic Party - described the decision as "incomprehensible." According to him, the decision calls upon society to dispense with a symbol standing for all the positive "values of our western civilization."

Others complained that for dissidents and freethinkers to resort to the courts to force the crucifixes to be taken down amounts to failure by them to appreciate and reciprocate the tolerance accorded them in Germany. These critics point out the folkloric connotation that Catholic paraphernalia has in Bavaria. Crucifixes are widely displayed in a purely decorative way there. It seems that Catholic conservatives in Germany hold the crucifixes to be vitally important, even while criticizing their antagonists for taking a strong stand on such a trivial issue. Still others compared the ruling of the Constitutional Court to the forcible replacement of the crucifixes with pictures of Hitler during the Third Reich.(2) The chief editor of Die Welt, a leading national right-leaning newspaper, was hastily fired for writing an editorial praising the court's decision. A member of the Bavarian State Parliament from the Green Party(3) explained, "The cross is the raw nerve."

The resemblance of all this to commonplace political posturing in the United States is remarkable, considering how different the backgrounds of the two countries are. …