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How Many Religious Symbols Can A Secular Society Tolerate?
("Deutsche Welle," September 8, 2007)

Berlin, Germany - Religion has found its way back into German society. Yet though church and state are kept separate, many Germans are asking themselves how much religious symbolism should influence their daily lives.

The renaissance of religion is a phenomenon currently growing across the globe. In Germany, this development has raised many difficult questions, for example to what extent religious symbols should exist in public life.

Religion is a private affair in Germany. Yet a cross made of brass hangs on the office wall of Professor Stefan Muckel, head of the Institute for Ecclesiastical Law at the University of Cologne. Just opposite is a picture of Pope Benedict XVI. According to Muckel, the university does not have a problem with the cross, as staff can decorate their office as they choose to.

But could he hang the cross on a classroom wall, as well? No, Muckel said, because then it would become a problem of his neutrality. In Germany, certain public places, such as courtrooms or classrooms, need to ensure absolute neutrality. Expressing attachment towards any religious belief is prohibited.

Germany's secular society contradicts itself

According to the constitution, Germany is a secular, religiously and ideologically neutral nation, which separates church and state. In practice, though, the two mix on many levels. This differs from France, for example, where the separation of the two is much stricter.

This contradiction is evident in various parts of German society. There is no official state religion or a state church, for example. Yet the state cooperates with the major churches in many aspects, both materially and idealistically.

Muckel said the constitution allowed the state to collect taxes for the church, for example. Religion was also a regular subject in public schools, he said. The church in Germany is strongly involved in social services, as well, such as in kindergartens, schools and hospitals -- with the support of government subsidies.

"It's no accident that the churches in the federal republic are the largest employers following the public service sector," Muckel said.

Religion is returning to people's lives

The Catholic and Protestant churches have been complaining about the many members leaving them in droves, putting the church in a perpetual crisis. They said they are also suffering from the subsequent drop in church taxes.

However, at the same time, there is a new development on the rise: religion's return into German society -- and it is not only limited to Christianity.

In June of this year, 500,000 people happily celebrated the German Protestant Church Day in Cologne. In July, the red carpet was rolled out for the Dalai Lama in Hamburg. An audience of over 5,000 people took part in a Buddhist seminar given by Tibet's spiritual leader. Another similar event was World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, which was the largest international party Germany had seen in decades.

Construction of a mosque is not a legal issue

Where there is religion, there are symbols, and religions express themselves through rituals and symbolism. That is what they live on. The question is: how much religious symbolism could a secular society such as Germany's tolerate without losing the nature of its being?

Muckel said one example was the planned construction of a large mosque in Cologne. There were no real legal barriers to the plans, Muckel said. But a controversial discussion has erupted on a political level.

Critics are questioning the height of the minaret and the size of dome. The questions are endless: how conspicuous can the entire construction be? How much of a mosque can a liberal city such as Cologne deal with? Why are those people, who are against the mosque, bothered by it? Why would the construction of a church be a lesser problem than that of a mosque?

The reaction to this criticism has not been lacking. Muslims feel they are being dealt with unfairly and that their basic religious rights are being violated.

Selected non-Christian symbols are forbidden

Muslims in Germany have said they felt unequal, because of the court rulings that resulted in a headscarf ban. In most federal states, the bans in public places were adopted, but they were selective and unfair, Muslim groups said.

In Berlin, for example, the symbols of all religious denominations are banned in classrooms, while in other federal states there are many clear differences. Christian and Jewish symbols are allowed, for example, while a headscarf, a sign of Islam, is forbidden.

According to the ban, if a Muslim teacher wears a headscarf during class time, the act is considered a demonstration of her religious commitment to a fundamental Islam that oppresses women's rights. It also violated the religious neutrality of public schools.

How far can religious symbolic expression go?

But teachers with a kippah on their head, a cross around their neck or wearing a Catholic habit are allowed to teach in almost all federal states. These symbols are a sign of western Christian tradition, the state legislation said.

The Federal Constitutional Court has said it wanted "strict equality" for all religions. But what does that mean for the fundamental principles of the states' neutrality for all religions?

That question was going to be put in the center of the debate, Gerd-Ulrich Kapteina, speaker for the Düsseldorf administrative court, told Deutsche Welle. On August 14, the courts ruled against the headscarf for teachers in schools. But Kapteina said that differentiating between Islamic and Christian symbols was inadmissible.

In addition to certain other public problems, the headscarf issue depicts the challenge the reanimation of religion puts onto a secular society. Germany has yet to find the answers.