Ethics-religion debate: Berlin referendum fails at the polls

Berliners voted Sunday on whether students can take religion instead of compulsory ethics classes. In the end, the referendum failed to attract either enough voters or a majority of those who did vote. Now the proposal’s backers are saying Berlin’s mayor hasn’t been playing fair. It was a referendum that dominated discussion in Berlin for weeks: Should school students have a choice between ethics and religion classes, or should ethics continue to be compulsory and religion an optional extra course?

But after the streets had been plastered with posters and the radio waves full of ads, after all the workshops, discussion panels and street-level campaigning, after all the special newspaper sections and all the lining-up of supporters drawn from the world of politics, sports and television, in the end, not enough people showed up at the polls to push the referendum through. “I’d been hoping for a different result,” said Christoph Lehmann, the lawyer who led the “Pro Reli” campaign, which was backed by the Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the churches. Archbishop Robert Zollitch, the head of the Catholic German Bishops Conference, viewed it as a “painful outcome.”

If passed, the proposal would have allowed students to choose between ethics and religion courses, which would have seen Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism taught separately. In the end, only 14.2 percent of all eligible voters in Berlin cast their ballots on Sunday in support of the “Pro Reli” proposal, which was well short of the 25 percent — or 611,422 votes — needed to effect the change. A total of 713,228 (29.2 percent) of Berlin’s 2.45 million eligible voters cast their ballot, 51.3 percent of which opposed and 48.5 percent of which supported the proposal. Berlin has a long secular tradition, and 60 percent of Berliners are not members of any church. In 2006, ethics classes became a compulsory subject for Berlin students between grade 7 and grade 10, with religion being an optional extra class, after the “honor killing” of a Turkish woman murdered by her brother. The proposal was opposed by Berlin’s ruling left-wing parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Left Party. The city-state’s government argues that all students, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background, should learn a common set of values. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit pronounced himself pleased with the results of the referendum, telling Reuters: “This shows that those in ‘Pro Reli’ who were portraying this as a ‘freedom’ issue — as if the Russians were about to invade — are out of touch with the real situation in Berlin.”

Berlin school referendum fuels debate on religious integration

A referendum on religion lessons in schools has triggered a fierce debate about how to boost tolerance and improve the integration of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live in the German capital.

Sunday’s vote may lead to a change in law in the city state of Berlin that would allow pupils to choose between faith-based religion lessons and a compulsory ethics course that aims to equip young people with a broader set of values. The “Pro Reli” campaign wants to change rules, introduced in 2006 out of worry about a lack of Muslim integration, which made Berlin one of Germany’s only states to have compulsory ethics lessons and optional religious courses. The referendum has aroused strong feelings in Berlin, where vandalized placards line the streets and charges of misleading posters have given the campaign a sour tone. It has also provoked a basic debate about fostering tolerance and respect.

The Pro Reli campaign, backed by Christian groups as well as some Muslim groups, who have long pushed for Islamic lessons, says a deep knowledge of their own faith gives pupils a strong moral compass which fosters tolerance. “The tradition of religion lessons in schools in Germany … has among other things led to religious people being less fundamentalist than in some other countries,” Pro Reli head Christoph Lehmann told Reuters. Since World War II, when authorities tried to use churches to strengthen values in a people shaken by the horrors of war and the Holocaust, most western German states have had religious education on the school curriculum. While Germany has roughly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, Berlin has a long secular tradition. It is also home to Germany’s biggest Muslim (mainly Turkish) community, which numbers about 220,000. Hoping to get Islamic lessons taught, several Muslim groups argue a change in the law could help against radicalization.

“It’s important that schools have enlightened Islamic lessons – and that we avoid unofficial Koran lessons in backyards,” said Ender Cetin of the Ditib Turkish-Islamic Union. Madeline Chambers reports.