The consumer affairs minister, Ilse Aigner, and her secretary of state, Julia Kloeckner, both Christian Democrats, had a crucifix put up Wednesday in the conference center of their ministry. Clerics of the two main churches were there to bless the cross. Kloeckner said, "It is good to be supported by the hand of God, and one can show that through making a clear statement."
Oliver Loesch, deputy chairman of the youth movement of the opposition Social Democrats and spokesman of a new social democratic group campaigning for laicism, finds that quite inappropriate.
"Ms Aigner and Ms Kloeckner can say that for themselves personally," he told Deutsche Welle. "We have freedom of religion and they can believe what they want, but it's not the way a ministry should act in Germany, because we have the separation of church and state in Germany - or we should have."
Too many privileges
He argues that the church still has too many privileges. The German constitution says, quite clearly, "There shall be no state church." But still the churches have protected slots on public television where they can give sermons, bishops' salaries are paid for by the state, the state finances the faculties of theology where priests are trained, and there are crucifixes, not only in the consumer affairs ministry, but also in courtrooms and classrooms.
"Our highest court decided already in 1995 that this should not be," said Loesch, "that if a teacher or a parent objected, the cross should be taken down. So we have this law, but this law is not applied."
Representatives of the church see the matter differently. Alois Glueck, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, says that Germany is a Christian country.
"Of course our entire value system is linked to Christianity," he said in a radio interview. "That's also what has put its stamp on our culture and our values. The values of our constitution are essentially Christian values. Nowadays the churches are once more expected to make a contribution to the development of a sense of values in our society. But that doesn't mean the state is propagating religion."
Islam is a new factor
The debate about the role of the church in society comes just as questions are being asked about the role of Islam here. In his speech to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification on October 3, President Christian Wulff said that Islam now belongs to Germany as Christianity and Judaism do. And last Thursday, the education minister, Annette Schavan, announced that the state would help finance the training of Muslim clerics and religion teachers at German universities.
Oliver Loesch doesn't see that as the way to show the equality of Islam.
"Of course there are two ways to ensure that Muslims get the same treatment as all religious and non-religious groups in Germany," he said. "The one is that the Muslim groups should get the same financial aid and assistance to get into the educational system; but you can also say that none of these religious groups should have these possibilities, and that's the way we are thinking."
But Mouhanad Khorchide, a professor of Islamic education at the University of Muenster, which is one of the beneficiaries of the government's new Islamic theology program, also points to the German constitution, which says that the state must ensure that schools offer religious instruction given by the religious communities themselves. That's a right he wants for Muslims too, but he agrees with Glueck: Germany is strongly influenced by Christianity, so he doesn't mind crucifixes in schools.
"But the current discussion shows that Germany - and Europe - have not just remained Christian, they've become multi-religious," he argues, "so the question is: shouldn't room be found for other symbols, and not just the cross?"
What is secularism?
In fact, he thinks the Social Democratic laity have got it wrong. Secularism does not necessarily mean getting rid of every public sign of religion.
"We have to ask ourselves what we understand by secularism," he told Deutsche Welle. "Perhaps we should revise our view so that it means the institutional separation between religion and state, leaving space for the religious symbols which provide people with an identity, without worrying that the state will thereby lose its secular status."
With the arrival of Islam on the scene, the question of how far religion should have an influence on public life has been given a new dimension. The constitution may have been influenced by Christianity, but it was also influenced by a secular tradition of republican values which, as several writers have pointed out, often had to fight the churches for such achievements as the rights of women or freedom of religious practice for non-Christians.
The Social Democrat lobby group has applied for official recognition by the party. So far it's met with opposition, with the party chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, saying that the chances of approval were slim. Commentators have noted that the adoption of a line critical of the church could cost the party votes in important elections in the traditionalist state of Baden-Wuerttemberg next March.
Author: Michael Lawton
Editor: Nancy Isenson