Anthroposophists on the other side of the ocean
- and of the religion in schools controversy!
(end of Christine's editorializing)
Church/state separation in Germany - for now this wall staysup.
Free Inquiry; 9/22/1995; Cohen, Edmund D.
The German Federal Constitutional Court recently became the subjectof
controversy when it ruled against a Bavarian law requiring thedisplay of crucifixes
in public school classrooms. Many had protestedthe ruling, saying that it was
incomprehensible and contrary to Germanvalues, with some even comparing it to a
1942 Nazi decree. On the otherhand, there are also those who believe that the
court's decision iscorrect.
In a period when church/state separation in the United States is being
eroded, it is heartening to read of a landmark church and state case in another
country where the highest court acts on principle and hands down an unpopular
decision. On August 10, 1995, the German Federal Constitutional Court made public
its ruling striking down a provision of the Bavarian State Educational Code
that called for the display of a crucifix in every public school classroom. In a
country written off by American Christian fundamentalist missionaries as
hopelessly post-Christian, this decision caused a furor.
In 1987, six-year-old Elina Seler was enrolled by her parents for her first
day of school in Schwandorf, northern Bavaria. The Selers are adherents of
Rudolf Steiner's spiritualistic philosophy, "Anthroposophy," and Elina had not
been raised on Catholic lore as Bavarian children normally are. Mr. Seler
described Elina's first day of school this way: "My daughter was forced to look up at
an eighty centimeter high naked, blood encrusted dead man that hung right in
Having never become desensitized to the gory imagery of the Crucifixion,
little Elina was terrified. Mr. Seler complained about the crucifix, as twenty or
so other Bavarian parents have done every year. Instead of issuing the usual
flat refusal, the school offered to substitute a plain, Protestant-style cross
with no corpus for the crucifix in Elina's classroom. The Selers took all
three of their children out of school in protest, relenting only when the
authorities threatened to prosecute them for truancy. Their legal complaint
challenging the crucifix was decided against them in the Bavarian state courts in 1991.
They appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court.
The Federal Constitutional Court held that "the introduction of a cross or
crucifix into the classrooms of a compulsory-attendance nonparochial school
violates Article 4 Section 1 of the Basic Law."(1) The court went on to explain
that the essence of the violation consists of forcing an individual to have
contact with the devotional paraphernalia of another religion, and implied that
all the crucifixes in public school classrooms in Bavaria would have to be taken
down. The decision also spoke of protection of minorities.
The decision prompted a torrent of extravagant rhetoric - a veritable field
day for political posturing - on the part of conservative political leaders.
They seemed unable to understand how the crucifix could signify something
banefully different to some people than it signifies to them. Chancellor Helmut Kohl
- also chairman of the ruling Christian Democratic Party - described the
decision as "incomprehensible." According to him, the decision calls upon society
to dispense with a symbol standing for all the positive "values of our western
Others complained that for dissidents and freethinkers to resort to the
courts to force the crucifixes to be taken down amounts to failure by them to
appreciate and reciprocate the tolerance accorded them in Germany. These critics
point out the folkloric connotation that Catholic paraphernalia has in Bavaria.
Crucifixes are widely displayed in a purely decorative way there. It seems
that Catholic conservatives in Germany hold the crucifixes to be vitally
important, even while criticizing their antagonists for taking a strong stand on such
a trivial issue. Still others compared the ruling of the Constitutional Court
to the forcible replacement of the crucifixes with pictures of Hitler during
the Third Reich.(2) The chief editor of Die Welt, a leading national
right-leaning newspaper, was hastily fired for writing an editorial praising the court's
decision. A member of the Bavarian State Parliament from the Green Party(3)
explained, "The cross is the raw nerve."
The resemblance of all this to commonplace political posturing in the United
States is remarkable, considering how different the backgrounds of the two
countries are. In the more remote history of Germany, nobles struggled against
the power and wealth of the Roman church - during the Reformation and at many
other times.(4) After World War II, the desire to reconstitute normal life led
to a larger role for the churches than their actual importance and influence
would have justified. In former West Germany, the Roman Catholic church and the
"Evangelical" (i.e., Lutheran) Protestant church were officially established,
and depended on church tax collected on their behalf by the government from
each individual church member. Each established church controls considerable
expenditure of public money, as well as the teaching of certain subjects in the
universities and in some cases public schools.
The strong institutional position of the two established churches is not
indicative of their actual influence, which is less than in the United States. The
Protestant church in Germany is much like stateside "mainline" liberal
Protestantism in its views. As in the American Catholic church, a wide chasm
separates the views of the German Catholic hierarchy from those of the laity.(5)
There is nothing comparable to stateside Protestant fundamentalism in Germany
(although special doctrine sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science
have footholds). The real situation is one of passive rather than active
support for the established churches by the German public.
Until reunification, West Germans enrolled in the church of their forebears
as a matter of course. The high costs of reunification caused taxes in Germany
to skyrocket. The pocket money that could be saved by disenrolling from one's
church and avoiding the payroll deduction for church tax - the equivalent of
thirty or forty U.S. dollars per month for most people - now makes a noticeable
difference in an average family's budget. Disenrollments, which held steady
at about 200,000 per year in former West Germany prior to reunification, are
expected to reach 600,000 for 1995. The church hierarchies are worried about the
resulting erosion in their revenues.(6)
The condition of the churches in what had been Communist East Germany is a
special and in some ways sad case. To belong to a church there under the old
regime caused one to be regarded as "lost to socialism" and ineligible for any
position of trust or responsibility. So, for many of the most thoughtful and
responsible people unwilling to go along with the Communist regime and not
allowed to leave the country, the churches were the only available avenue of
expression. It was ordinary East German people in 1989 who brought about that bright,
shining, redeeming moment in German history when protesters poured out of the
churches of Leipzig, and - at great personal risk - brought down a
totalitarian regime with the sheer moral force of their protest. Would that their
grandparents had done something similar in the early thirties!
With the collapse of the Honnecker regime, leadership opportunities of every
kind opened up to East Germans who had been sidelined in the churches. That
opening abruptly curtailed church participation in the five new German states.
With finances far more straitened than in former West Germany, few enroll to
pay church tax.
So, why is it that "the cross is the raw nerve"? That could well be because
the economic uncertainty of the German churches parallels a larger economic
uncertainty. More so than in the United States, Germans are anxious because they
know that they can no longer afford their accustomed high standard of living
because of foreign competition, and taxes skyrocketing to combat deficits, and
they realize that their indispensable cutting-edge status in industry and
technology is slipping away from them. The Christian Democrats in particular have
a narrower parliamentary majority than before the 1994 national election, and
an unclear vision of the future. So, they mutter about the decline of "western
Perhaps the ingredient of the crucifix controversy most uncharacteristic of
Germans is the widespread talk of disobedience to the Federal Constitutional
Court's decision - the brewing of a kind of "massive resistance." The most
important of the German leaders expressing such a view is Edmund Stoiber, the
Premier of the Bavarian State Parliament, the counterpart of a governor in the
United States. He has declared his intention to order removal of the crucifixes
only in those instances where there is a complaint. A family like the Selers
would now get its grievance redressed in Bavaria - after the damage has been
At this juncture, it appears that this controversy cannot go in any direction
that would be good for the rule of law in Germany. The opportunity simply to
obey the decree and make the best of it has already been missed; to do so
would have been an appropriate generous gesture to the sizeable Muslim minority
and the symbolically important Jewish remnant. If Stoiber's plan is carried out
and there follows no reciprocal exercise of power to enforce the
constitutional court's decree, then there is no rule of law in Germany. If the
constitutional court rehears the case and climbs down from its decree, then its lack of
independence and vulnerability to political pressure will be painfully obvious.
A constitutional amendment to neutralize the decree would be a frivolous
distraction from serious public business. Such an amendment clearly could not
attract the necessary two-thirds majority in the two chambers of the German
At best, the protagonists in the crucifix controversy are in a dilemma of
their own making. They may have set the stage for a constitutional crisis in the
coming months. The controversy will play out, and it will be the old story of
views that cannot stand up to scrutiny coming under that very scrutiny.
1. "Freedom of faith, of conscience, and freedom of creed, religious or
ideological (weltanschaulich), shall be inviolable."
2. This claim is not as frivolous as it may first appear. In 1942, the Nazi
Party ordered that the crucifixes in Bavarian classrooms either by taken down
or displayed only underneath the mandatory Hitler portraits. This met with
widespread grass-roots resistance, and various Catholic school teachers ignored
threats from party officials. There was a flurry of Catholic resignations from
the Nazi Party and boycotts of local Party functions were staged in protest.
More teachers and administrators engaged in this resistance than the Nazis could
see their way clear to send to Dachau. The Nazi Party backed down. The
behavior of these ordinary Catholic laymen was in sharp contrast to the
well-documented craven complicity of the Catholic hierarchy with the Hitler regime.
3. A liberal, environmentalist party with significant strength at all levels
in German politics.
4. The term culture war - Kulturkampf - bandied about so freely by right-wing
commentators in the United States refers to Otto von Bismarck's attack on the
autonomy of the Catholic church in Prussia. He wrested control of the schools
from it, and imposed his own rules on its operation and elevation of the
clergy. He deposed some Catholic bishops and jailed others at the height of the
controversy. Many reference books contain face-saving references to the church's
eventual victory in the "culture war." But the Catholic church never
recovered its former power in Prussia, even though the state rules governing its
operation were lifted.
5. A public opinion poll in 1994 showed that 87 percent of German Catholics
favor abolition of the requirement of priestly celibacy, and 60 percent regard
the reign of Pope John Paul II as a destructive one. Der Spiegel, December 12,
1994, (50), p. 81 ff.
Anti-abortion views are, however, more prevalent in Germany than in the
United States. A compromise national abortion law attempting to resolve the
differences of the two former German nations on the subject was enacted recently. The
law contains ambiguities that make its practical effect unclear.
6. See Der Spiegel, March 6, 1995, (10), p. 76 ff.
Edmund D. Cohen is the author of The Mind of the Bible-Believer (Prometheus
COPYRIGHT 1995 Council for Democratic and SecularHumanism, Inc.