When children here in the German state of Brandenburg go back to
school in a few weeks, many of them will start in on a
controversial new religion course that has been condemned as the
ultimate "de-Christianization" of eastern Germany, something the
Communists always wanted.
Critics are upset that the new course, which replaces mandatory
traditional religious education, will merely teach about religion
from a nondenominational point of view.
The new course faces a challenge in the constitutional high
court. But the program's proponents, many of them church people,
defend the new course as appropriate to a pluralistic society,
especially one where four decades of state-promoted atheism in the
former East Germany have left the majority alienated from the
The balance between church and state is delicate in many places
around the world. Societies are struggling with how state
institutions can or should inculcate moral and ethical values
while accommodating genuine freedom of religion.
Unlike the situation in the United States, where the
Constitution requires separation between church and state, German
Basic Law requires state-supported schools to provide specific
religious instruction given by church-certified catechists,
generally either Roman Catholic or Lutheran. The required religious
course typically fills a couple of hours in a 30-hour school week,
although there is an opt-out clause.
It was different in the former East Germany, where
Marxist-oriented civics courses were part of the curriculum. Those
were abolished in short order at reunification in 1990. But the
question remained: How were the former East German states, where
less than 30 percent of the people identify themselves as
Christians, to respond to the constitutional requirement for
Four of the five states - Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, and
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania - now offer a choice between
traditional religious instruction as in western Germany, or a
nonreligious ethics course.
But Brandenburg came up with something different: an integrated
course called "Lifestyles, Ethics, and Religion," known as LER.
Hartmut Kienel, director of the educational policy department of
Brandenburg's education ministry, acknowledges the validity of some
of the church criticism; the secular eastern German educators have
not always been comfortable with the idea of religion, he concedes.
But he describes how one teacher, part of a pilot program testing
the new course, took her class on a "field trip" to a church - an
alien place to most of them. "They met with the pastor, who
explained what the organ was, what the baptismal font was, what the
cross was. And I think this is a terrific development."
The Brandenburg situation illustrates many concerns, shared by
other societies, regarding the public teaching of moral and ethical
values. It also reflects some trends that are more specifically
*The efforts of the two established churches, Lutheran and Roman
Catholic, to hold their ground at a time of widely perceived
"deinstitutionalization" of society, and a time when hikes in
church taxes are causing many to abandon church membership. …