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Religion or ethics: German schools in a quandary

High school students beginning a new academic year in Germany this fall will study ethics and philosophy in a controversial course that has become a battleground between secularists and the nation's established churches.

The Evangelical Church of Germany and the Roman Catholic Church have joined forces with the Christian Democratic Union, the nation's ruling conservative party, to take the state of Brandenburg _ once part of the former German Democratic Republic _ to the country's highest court for its plan to make mandatory a non-denominational course in values, ethics and religion for high school students between age 12 and 16. The German federal constitutional court will review the case in September.

A 1949 German federal law requires all children to attend religion classes until the age of 15, at which point they can opt out. Parents may withdraw their children at an earlier age if they have officially left their church.

But the government of the former East German state of Brandenburg argues that it is exempt from the law, and instead wants to offer a course in comparative religion, philosophy and ethics.

The new course seeks to provide a forum for students and teachers to deal with issues linked to sexuality, family life, environmental protection and multiculturalism. It would examine the world's main religions without advocating preference for any one of them. It would also explore issues such as religious tolerance and discuss such issues as the Holocaust.

"Our goal is to promote pluralism and not just the Christian perspective on issues," said Holger Roefke, a teacher of philosophy in a secondary school. He also is a member of the Brandenburg chapter of Germany's Humanist Federation, a coalition of educators and others who collaborated with the Brandenburg state department of education to create the course.

This scenic but impoverished rural state was once an industrial center, but in the post-communist era, its manufacturing economy is stagnant. Brandenburg, which borders the city-state of Berlin, now is a haven for tourists, who are drawn to its natural beauty, parks and forests.

German advocates for greater separation of church and state will be watching Brandenburg's legal case closely. Many believe it is time to completely secularize the educational system and other functions of the state, which historically have been closely linked to organized religion.

But the new ethics course has angered leaders of the nation's Christian churches, who see it as an attempt to minimalize Christianity's presence in schools and in society. They want students to at least have the right to choose between religious instruction or a secular ethics course.

Religious education in Brandenburg is currently an extracurricular activity, with some 7,000 of the state's 450,000 school-age children receiving Christian instruction. Church leaders, however, want to see religion offered as an official course on par with the ethics course.

"There are many individuals and groups in both western and eastern Germany who would like to drive religion out of public life. They want a country where individuals only practice their faith in a small corner of their homes," says Bishop Wolfgang Huber of the Berlin-Brandenburg Church.

Christian leaders also cast the ethics course as an attempt to "forcibly secularize" Brandenburg's students. They argue that the course goes too far in teaching moral relativism and gives too much leeway to teachers and the state to present Christianity in a negative light.

Brandenburg officials refuse to back down, arguing that the course is "more relevant to today's society." Some 80 percent of Brandenburg's population no longer identifies itself with any religious denomination, according to the Evangelical Church. This is largely due to the erosion of Christianity in the former German Democratic Republic, which officially allowed freedom of conscience, but limited religious activities.

While the German Evangelical Church played a leading role in the fall of communism in the former East Germany and provided a meeting place for dissenters over decades, its public role has diminished in the few years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, only 20 percent of the region's population is listed as members of the Evangelical Church.

"The churches should be glad that we're offering this course. It at least exposes students to Christian thought," Roefke said.

Some proponents of secularization attribute the church's opposition to the ethics course to a desire to "market religion."

Today, all German citizens are required by law to declare their religious affiliation on their income tax forms and to pay church tax. Many religious schools, hospitals and social services are funded entirely by tax revenues, but have been hit by hard times because of the increasing numbers of Germans who are leaving their churches and no longer pay the church tax.

Increasingly, children are opting out of religious classes all over Germany, said Ulrich Klan, a high school teacher in the northwestern city of Wupperthal. Klan is trying to start a nationwide association of teachers promoting non-denominational teaching of ethics and morality.

"Students are skeptical of what the churches are trying to teach them during class. They see these classes as advertisement for outdated church doctrine," Klan said.

"At the same time, they need to deal with tremendously complex social issues in their own lives and they're looking for some kind of alternative approach that will help them grapple with these problems."