Weekly review: when faith splits the ranks

Weekly review: when faith splits the ranks

Bucharest, March 7, 2015/ Independent Balkan News Agency 

By Daniel Stroe

Romania has been this closing week embroiled in a heated debate on whether parents should enlist their children in the school religious classes following an order by a court to do so. Previously, parents had to apply in writing to remove their children from such classes, but judges decided the move was unconstitutional. Religious classes remain thus optional and hence the whole discussion which in the end only shows the Romanian Orthodox Church is losing ground.

Things are clear enough for those beholding the spectacle: the Romanian Constitutional Court made a decision on the basis of which parents no longer have to fill in a form so that their children no longer attend these classes. Now, according to the court’s decision, they only have to fill in a form if they want the children to frequent those classes. If no form is signed, children can skip religious classes. The case was brought before the Constitutional Court by a teacher in Buzau, a city in south-east Romania, who sued the high-school where his daughter was studying. Years ago, the same teacher called on the National Anti-Discrimination Council to act to end the „discrimination situation created by the obstinate presence of the religious symbols in schools”.

And the verdict came from the council as well – teaching religion in the public education system „is a discrimination against agnostic persons or having another religious confession than the one the religious symbols belong to and an encroachment on the fundamental right to equality of chances because by accepting religious symbols the public schools also assume conveying women’s inferior values the respective religion practices”. The council also decided religion study in schools encroaches upon the right to freedom of conscience and called on legal amendments which shall give students the right to choose.

Forced to observe de verdict of the Constitutional Court, authorities had to transpose the court’s decision into the education law. Therefore, by 6 March (yesterday), parents had to make a choice, whether they enlist their children in religious classes or not. And they did – about 2.1 million pupils out of the total 3.1 were signed up to attend these religious classes. The lowest level of registration was 80 per cent, in a county in SW Romania, which shows that, despite tremors sent across the religious spectrum by the court’s decision, most of the parents opted for the religious classes. It is not ruled out the number will decrease when the next enlistments are made.

Anyway, feeling the threat, the Romanian Church geared up and started a vivid campaign to promote religious classes. Moreover, the country’s audio-visual council (CAN) also joined forces with the Church and sent a recommendation to TV stations asking them to promote the Church’s video spots in which various stars encourage parents to sign up their children for religious classes. The recommendation drew complaints and petitioners argued the message of the promotion spots – “enlist your child in a religious class or the class will be dissolved” – contains false information and is manipulating.

In supporting the Church (some parents complained about pressure exerted on them by school head masters), authorities explain there are about 6,000 religious teachers, 4,200 of them working on a full norm. If, following parents’ decision not to enlist children in these classes, education authorities will have to cut down the number of religious posts across the country, the teachers will sue the Ministry of Education. A fragile argument into this discussion…One thing is clear: the ministry initially said the court’s decision will be implemented as of September, when the new school year begins. But the court’s president, Judge Augustin Zegrean, warned the decision is applicable as soon as is published in the Official Gazette, which happened early this year. Hence the 6 March deadline for registrations which the ministry tried to avoid.

The school is laic and the court’s decision follows this very principle, many analysts pointed out. As the debate is now calming, the new focus is on the ministry of Education having to solve one final problem: the problem of the religious classes placed in the middle of the daily school schedule. Parents whose children are not enlisted to attend the religious classes complain their children have to attend the class anyway since they are not allowed to leave the classroom and point to a deliberate move in this regard. They ask for the religious classes to be held either at the beginning or the end of the daily schedule so the pupils who do not want to attend them can come to school later or leave earlier. Schools will have to find a solution so that children unwilling to attend religious classes are not in the end constrained to do so.