Row Erupts Over Ethics and Religion Ruling

Conservative politicians in Germany are up in arms over the decision made by the ruling SPD-Green government to make lessons in ethics and religion compulsory in Berlin.

School lessons with religious content in a country like Germany, in which church and state and are deliberately kept separate has always been a very emotive issue.

A new row over the form that lessons with religious content should take has now broken out in Germany, following a decision by Social Democrat leaders in the city state of Berlin to make lessons in ethics and religion compulsory.

These lessons would provide a general survey of the world’s religions without any special bias towards the Christian faith. Lessons organized by the churches would only be optional and would not free students of the obligation to attend the new ethics classes.

The decision by Berlin’s SPD leadership has infuriated numerous federal politicians particularly from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria’s arch-conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).

During a special parliamentary session in the federal parliament on Wednesday, the CDU's education spokespeople called Berlin’s plan to introduce mandatory ethics lessons an aggressive assault on the Christian faith in German society.

The party’s Hermann Kues said the new lessons to be introduced in 2006 smacked too much of the anti-religious approach that teachers in former Communist East Germany preferred:

A question of choice

"The freedom of religion is one of our highest values," Kues said. "I believe that the new ethics lessons as intended by Berlin are not suitable to give school students a fair choice of whether to become believers or atheists. There are references to God in our Constitution or Basic Law, and we must not let anyone neglect values which in our society are so much based on Christian faith."

Needless to say the Christian churches themselves have joined the critics' chorus. The head of Germany's Protestant church council, Wolfgang Huber (photo), declared that everything had to be done to prevent Berlin from becoming godless. But Wilhelm Schmidt from the Social Democrat faction in the Bundestag accused his political rivals of hypocrisy

"No one prevents anyone from taking lessons in the religion of their choice," Schmidt complained. "So why all the fuss now? None of the opponents of the Berlin plan, he argued, ever complained about the fact that only a meager 20 percent of school students have taken part in voluntary lessons in Christianity in the past few decades. "And now all of a sudden you’re making such a fuss", he told conservative MPs.

Brandenburg success a template

Ethics lessons, which Berlin is poised to make compulsory, were introduced in neighboring Brandenburg as early as 1996. And according to the head of the region's institute for education, Jan Hofmann, the subject has been a success.

Students whose parent object will be in the minoroty, says Jan Hofmann

"There’s only a very small group of school students whose parents categorically object to these lessons," he said. "And then there are those who have opted for lessons in religion offered by either the Catholic or Protestant church. These children do not have to attend ethics classes. I think that despite initial criticism our system has worked quite well and might serve as a model for other federal states."

It is possible that Berlin may have to soften the compulsory status of its planned general ethics lessons, because Germany’s conservative parties are intending to bring the issue before the federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe.