Religious education treaty passes amidst protests

A STRONG majority of 95 MPs voted in favour of a much-disputed treaty with the Vatican that will make religion a mandatory option for study in Slovak elementary and secondary schools for students aged six to 18 years.

Under the treaty, children who do not want to study religion will have to choose ethics instead. Until now, this choice has only been mandatory for children aged 10 to 16. The new religious education classes will start with the new school year in September 2004.

The Vatican treaty also enables religious classes in kindergarten, provided that enough children, or their parents, show interest in them.

Apart from the Catholics, 11 other registered churches in Slovakia will be given the same right, protected under a special treaty that MPs approved along with the Vatican treaty.

Catholicism is the strongest denomination in Slovakia, as almost 70 percent of the population describes itself as Roman-Catholic. The Slovak parliament also reflects these statistics; the majority of Slovakia's parliamentary parties have the word Christian in their name or quote Christianity as an elementary value in their party principles.

Liberals and left-wing parties protested the passage of the treaties. The Slovak Communist Party even declared it would attack the treaty with the Vatican in the Constitutional Court.

"Slovakia is becoming a church state," said communist party MP Ivan Hopta, shortly after the Vatican treaty was passed.

The ruling, liberal New Citizen's Alliance joined the opposition parties on the matter. The party objected that the treaty on religious education would not only cost the state about Sk100 million (€2.46 million) for books and teacher salaries, but also that the treaty enables church schools to ignore the state-approved education strategy.

While religious education will be given to pupils at public schools, the Vatican Treaty also guarantees that special church schools, co-financed by the state, can cut material from various subjects that contradicts the denomination's religious beliefs.

The opposition party Smer also opposed the treaty.

"From the point of view of the Constitution, I think that the treaty represents a serious change of the character of this country from a civil to a church state," Smer chairman Robert Fico said on January 25.

"We are not against teaching religion as a subject at schools, but it should definitely not be a mandatory subject and especially not for children starting at such a young age," Fico said.

But the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and other parties who supported the treaties argued that freedom of choice would be maintained, as parents and students could choose ethics if they did not like religious education. They dismissed fears that Slovakia was becoming a church state as ungrounded.

"That is complete rubbish," said Interior Minister and KDH deputy chairman Vladimír Palko.

"For me the situation is simple. Parents who want their children to study religion can do so, and those who do not can have their children learn the other subject," Palko said.

But critics, including Smer, argued that in small villages, for example, where many people still actively practice religion and go to Sunday mass, there would be indirect social pressure on parents to send their kids to religion rather than ethics classes.

Others warned that some young people might, paradoxically, turn away from religion and even grow an aversion to it as a result of the forced choice between religion and ethics.

"I think that religion [classes] in schools may, in the end, help vaccinate many children against true Christianity," Daniel Pastirčák, a preacher with the Fraternal Church, said to the Slovak daily SME on January 22.

"It would be much better to invest in helping families so that they live deeper lives, as ethics is first formed in the family. When this task is transferred to schools, values will become formal and it will not work well.

Children will grow to dislike religion and ethics," Pastirčák said.

Church officials did not agree with that statement.

"That [argument] is as [absurd as] if someone said that a child who is taught to speak will grow an aversion to speaking," said Marián Gavenda, spokesman for the Slovak Conference of Bishops.

He said religious and ethical education was needed to counter what the bishops conference sees as an educational system dominated by practical sciences and a negative social trend in which people focus too much on professional achievements.

"It often happens that people who are professionally successful cannot deal with their personal problems. We hope that religion and possibly also ethics will balance this trend," said Gavenda.