Religion classes have been a normal part of the Romanian child’s school day since the advent of democracy more than 20 years ago. In a country where more than four in five people follow Orthodoxy, “religion” usually meant Orthodox teachings, and the small number of pupils who preferred not to take the classes often had no choice, as many schools offered no alternative subjects.
Under the law, children could not be required to take religion, but until last year parents who wished to remove their children from the classes had to opt out by submitting a request to the school.
That was until the Constitutional Court turned the procedure on its head. In November the court found parts of the system unconstitutional and installed an “opt-in” system instead, requiring parents to request that their children be enrolled in religion class.
The Romanian Orthodox Church was rocked by the ruling, calling it “discriminatory and humiliating,” and quickly assembled a support group of celebrities for an online campaign to explain the new law and persuade parents to keep their children in religion class.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, groups like the Secular Humanist Association were delighted. For association president Alexandru Toma Patrascu, children are too often fed an intolerant, manipulative message instead of being taught to understand religion in its broader context.
He gives the example of religion textbooks that contain pictures of a child being hit by a car as a punishment for lying, or the admonishment not to make friends with children of other faiths.
In agreeing to hear a complaint against the religion law brought by an activist for secular causes, Emil Moise, the Constitutional Court tried to unravel the tangled legal relationship between the churches and the public schools, which in effect made religion class both mandatory and optional. The Romanian Constitution guarantees the right to study religion in public school, and the education law enshrines religion classes in the core curriculum throughout a student’s school life starting from the first year of primary school. But paradoxically, taking part in religion class was optional in what is, after all, a constitutionally secular republic.
Moise argued (pdf) that the education law violated the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The court took a middle course. It found that the constitutional right of parents to raise and educate their children also grants the right to enroll their children in religion classes.
But since parents cannot be forced to expose their children to religion, the court put the onus on religious parents. From now on, not enrolling in religion class would be the default mode; parents who wish to sign up their children for such classes would have to opt in.
And opt in they did, in a big way. The Education Ministry set 6 March as the deadline for parents to decide. If the Orthodox Church and Romania’s 17 other recognized faith groups ever were seriously worried about secularists undermining their moral authority – atheists and those who profess no faith make up a negligible 0.2 percent of the population – they needn’t have been. By deadline day, 89.75 percent of parents had enrolled their children in religion class for the next school year.
With publicly subsidized religious studies firmly entrenched, the debate is swinging back to those who opt out of the classes. Secular campaigners like Moise and Patrascu, joined by some liberal believers, say the state needs to pay attention to their constitutionally guaranteed rights, as well as the rights of non-Orthodox believers to learn about their own religions in public schools.
The question of what to do for the more than 200,000 children whose parents kept them out of religion classes next year remains unresolved. Education Minister Sorin Campeanu suggested holding religion classes at the beginning or end of the school day in order not to affect the schedules of the other 10 percent.
One idea discussed by parliament’s education committee, but so far only there, is to offer civic and moral education as an alternative to religious studies. Spain introduced such classes in 2006 as part of its own long process of diluting the Catholic Church’s role in public education.
Mother and broadcast journalist Adriana Ene maintains that the value of religion classes goes beyond teaching the basics of (usually) Orthodox belief, and in this she probably speaks for the silent majority of Romanian parents.
Her two sons, 10 and 14, not only learn “why there is an icon on the classroom wall” and why the saints make good role models, she says.
“I wanted them to go to religion class, because there they learned that they can bring books and clothes for poor children. And because the religion class is like an oasis of peace and of good examples they can take with them at home or wherever they go,” she said.
Romania is far from the only European country to agonize over the role of the churches in public education.
In Spain, like Romania a society dominated by a single religion, the Catholic Church plays a far smaller role in schools than in the past. But even though schools now must offer social and civil values teaching in addition to optional Catholic religion classes, two of three students opt for Catholicism, El Pais recently reported.
Patrascu favors the system used in the Netherlands, where teaching about individual religions is offered almost exclusively outside of the public school system. Romania could adopt a more values-based system, putting more stress on the history of religion and less on the ideology of the Orthodox Church, he argues.
The Orthodox hierarchy’s panicked reaction to the November court ruling harks back to a time, only a generation ago, when religion was taboo in public life. Leading Communist officials were not allowed to be seen going to church, even for a baptism or wedding, and many churches were demolished on the order of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. With the regime’s fall in 1989 came a renewal of public displays of faith. The Orthodox Church was the main beneficiary, as it regained its old position of moral authority and state benefits began to flow in, a situation that led to criticism and complaints about the wealth of the church, which is financed by the state yet pays no taxes.
Soon after the change of regimes, schools began introducing religion classes, usually led by priests until enough specialized teachers could be trained.
“Religion is important for the development of a child because it contributes to shaping his personality and it helps him to learn positive moral behavior,” said Laura Tonghioiu, a religion teacher in Bucharest.
She denies that children are manipulated by religion teachers, the argument put by Patrascu and others who say religion plays too big a role in Romanian life. Rather, they learn to be respectful, civic-minded citizens through studying moral and religious teachings. Religion does not impose, it proposes a way, she says.
For Ene, religion class imparts useful information like any other.
“Just as my children are taught Romanian, mathematics, biology, music, so in the same way they should know their religion and its moral significance. To be good, to help others, to learn about God, there is nothing wrong in this.”
Where moderate believers like Ene and secularists do find common ground is on the need to reform the way religion is taught. Although the Romanian constitution states that children from all faith groups should be able to study their own religion, this happens only on paper, Ene acknowledges, owing to the lack of specialized teachers in faiths other than Orthodoxy.
“Children who don’t want to study religion, or those of a different confession, have no alternative,” Ene said.
The predominance of Orthodox teachers led parents to complain to the Secular Humanist Association, Patrascu said.
“There were situations when parents wanted their children not to study religion, but they had to stay in the class because there were no alternatives,” he said.
Romania’s education law makes no mention of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Rather, it says schools “will ensure their constitutional right to participate in the religion class to students belonging to religions recognized by the state, regardless of their number and according to their own confession.”
But a protocol signed by the Orthodox Church and the Education Ministry in May gives the church an advisory role in the writing of textbooks for Orthodox religion classes. And the church has the final say over the teachers of such classes. They must obtain written approval, or a “blessing,” from the Orthodox hierarchy, and if the blessing is withdrawn for good reason, the teacher’s employment contract is terminated.
Patrascu says parents sometimes complain of abuses such as religion teachers taking their pupils to church during class time – with some justification, Ene agrees.
“I would take the side of parents who confront extremist religion teachers, or teachers who lack dedication,” she said. “The children should be taught religion with kindness and responsibility. … There are extraordinary teachers and those who are not so good for this job, like anywhere else.”
Lorelei Mihala is a journalist with Romanian National Television. This article was originally published on Transitions Online.