Furor in Germany over Teaching Less about God Post-Reunification Religion Course in Schools Angers Churches

Article excerpt

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 churches.

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 religious instruction?

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 German:

*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. …