What’s the place of religion in the classroom? In Berlin a referendum will on Sunday ask that very question. Currently, the subject of ethics is obligatory and courses in different religious faiths are optional.
Religion in school - essential or an option?
Unlike in most of Germany, pupils in the capital Berlin do not attend mandatory religion classes.
The pupils can however if they decide to opt for extra-curricular lessons in their religious confession. Ethics, on the other hand, is a core subject.
The city is divided over the issue. Faith groups say that religion is being marginalized in Berlin, while supporters of ethics courses say it is essential for an international town like Berlin, where different faiths, ethnicities and other groups live side by side, to have a general subject on morals, ethics and values.
The initiative "Pro-Religion" has been campaigning that students should be able to choose between either ethics or religion.
Islam courses are an option along with Catholic or Protestant ones
Volker Ladenthin, professor of education at Bonn University, is in favor of leaving the system the way it is, arguing that ethics is too much of a fundamental issue to be optional.
"Students are facing highly complex problems in our society," he said. "For that they need to know how to approach such problems, how to deal with them, how to make decisions based on values."
He adds that ethics courses are needed to familiarize students with the values that a society is based on, to make them think about and - it is hoped - adopt those values.
The ethics course is not limited to one religious confession, and its supporters say that in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society that's a crucial advantage. The subject became part of the capital's core curriculum in 2006 in the wake of a so-called honor killing within Berlin's Turkish community, which raised questions about faith and moral values being taught to the younger generation.
Religion goes further
Religion as a subject is confession-based, with students segregated according to faith. Father Hans Langendörfer of the German Bishops Conference argues that religion as a subject not only covers the ground of ethics but goes much further.
There's controversy as to whether ethics courses are the better way to instill morals and values
"Teaching religion is of course not identical with teaching ethics," he said. "Religion asks questions about God, about meaning, sense and perspective in our lives. Of course that includes many ethical issues but it's more than simply teaching the values of our society."
The crucial difference he adds is that in ethics, students simply debate what could be done in a given situation or problem. But religion tells the students what they should do.
"The subject of religion gives you an orientation in life," he says. "Of course that's linked to ethical values but it actually urges you to fulfill these."
But others insist that ethics is a fundamental issue that only can be complemented but not replaced by religion. There are no calls that religion as such should vanish from the curriculum – but simply that it should not become mandatory again.
Professor Ladenthin is convinced that ethics is a subject just as important as any of the other traditional core subjects.
"It has to be mandatory – just as physics for instance is mandatory," he says. "We can not walk on the ceiling or on the wall – even if we may want to. Physical laws tell us that it's simply impossible. And in the very same manner, ethical laws tell us what's morally wrong and what's right."
Yet for many parents in Germany, ethics is the only option anyway. The country is largely secular. While two-thirds of Germans officially belong to a faith, only a fraction of them actually go to church.
Author: Katrin Schilling/Andreas Illmer
Editor: Kyle James