When, in 1996, Berlin's senator for education, proposed introducing mandatory ethic classes in the city's high schools, he set a slow ball rolling. Almost a decade later, a final decision is about to be taken.
How important is the role of religion in Berlin's schools?
At issue is the system of religious education which has been in place in the German capital since before WWII. It is a complex model allowing school children to choose which religion, if any, they wish to include in their school timetables.
While the rule, which is based on a constitutional clause for religious freedom, is only fair, the problem is that given half a chance to cut back on class hours, a large percentage of students fall over themselves to do so.
Free time for all those who want it
It is precisely that option to forgo religious education altogether which bothers Berlin's education senator, Klaus Böger. His spokeswoman, Rita Hermanns, said the current system is too lax.
"High school students have a choice between religious studies or going to the ice cream parlor, and that is unsatisfactory. It's not right that some pupils have contact with ethics and religious history while others don't."
Ethics and religion combined
What Social Democratic Senator Böger has long been proposing for high schools, is the introduction of a completely new, compulsory class which would cover religion, philosophy, ethics and life choices. And although initial resistance from both his party colleagues and their coalition partners, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), has now transformed into support, Böger has another more difficult, problem on his hands.
"The senator wants to see the introduction of this new subject but doesn't want to scrap the current opportunities for religious education," said Hermanns. Under Böger's plan, pupils would have to choose between religion class and the new diluted mix of religion, ethics and life choices. What they would no longer be able to do is simply opt out altogether.
The church wants to keep its presence in German schools
While Böger's proposals have been warmly welcomed by both the Protestant and Catholic churches, they have met with consternation among his political peers who are in favor of the new subject but say it should be a must for everyone without discussion. They are calling for just one, state-run subject aimed at introducing students to all main religions and philosophies. They say that those kids who wish to continue with religious studies could do so as an added extra.
Who in their right mind?
Stefan-Rainer Schultz, a Protestant in Berlin, said the model is flawed from the outset. "What normal 14-year-old is going to volunteer to take on extra classes if they don't actually have to?"
And while he doubtless has a point, the PDS dismisses his argument on the basis that the majority of the 150,000 pupils who opt for religious education at school are too young to be affected by any new ruling. "We know that once children reach high school, the number of those who take religion tails off," PDS spokeswoman Kathi Seefeld said.
Berlin has a large Muslim population
The PDS argues that given Berlin's multiculturalism, it is crucial to offer upcoming generations access to a broad spectrum of knowledge.
"We want young people to learn about different cultures and religions and to be in a position to think about their own religion and background," Seefeld said. "One of the problems in Berlin is the lack of mutual respect among teenagers, and this new model could help to alleviate the problem."
Choice is of the essence
While nobody disagrees with the importance of granting adolescents the opportunity to broaden their horizons, the Catholic Church is eager to stress the virtue of choice.
"Students should be able to choose between ethics and religious studies," said Hans Peter Richter of the archdiocese of Berlin. "We agree it is perfectly acceptable to have a compulsory area of study, but the church should also be left to do its work in peace."
Many schools offer Buddhism
The issue of who would teach a mandatory ethics class is another bone of contention in this debate. Currently, religion teachers are not employed by the city's schools, but by the churches, Buddhist organizations or the Islamic Federation. Under the new system, teachers employed by the state of Berlin would cover all aspects of the new curriculum.
"We would draw in unemployed teachers from Brandenburg or use those already in Berlin who have some experience in the realm of ethics or religion, and there would, of course, be the opportunity to invite experts into classes to talk about certain areas of religion," Seefeld of the PDS said.
The need for division
But it is precisely the idea of lumping everything together which has both the Catholic and Protestant churches up in arms.
"It's too much for one teacher to present each religion in equal measure. What we need is divided religious education with the opportunity for different groups to come together regularly for an open dialogue on their religious and cultural differences," Richter argued.
In the absence of Islam at school, students can attend Koran classes
Political powers are against that, for a specific reason. Seefeld said there are fears among some politicians that as long as the Islamic Federation is responsible for teaching the Koran in Berlin schools, Islamic fundamentalism could rise.
However, the debate can only continue to rage for a few more days, as a ballot at the beginning of April will decide the issue once and for all.