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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Non-Separation of Religion and State in Germany

Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed in Germany. However, the basic principle of separation of religion and state does not exist. Public life and private life - where religion should belong - are therefore not divided.

Separation of children in school according to their religious affiliation is an official practice enforced by the German state. Children in German public schools must choose between an obligatory class in religious education and a class in ethics, where various issues of philosophy and morals are discussed. Religious education must therefore conform to the principles of the religious communities inside the State education system. The choice offered to an Atheist Jewish child is thus between being tagged by his/her schoolmates as a Jew or as unaffiliated to a mainstream religious group.

In Germany, the state collects a so called Kirchensteuer (church tax) from all registered members of tax-collecting religious congregations under public law (mainly of the Protestant and Catholic Christian faiths). These contributions amount to 8-9% of the income tax. They are used to pay the salaries of ministers, priests or rabbis – who for example administer marriage ceremonies and funerals - to pay the salaries of religion teachers in public schools, to pay community social programs - such as kindergartens and hospitals - or to pay the construction of buildings for public worship. Membership in a tax-collecting religious community must therefore be declared to the tax authorities. People who are not member of such a religious congregation must declare so in their taxation document and do not have to pay this contribution to the state. The German tax system therefore clearly categorizes tax-payers (German nationals and residents in Germany) according to their religious affiliation.

In these conditions, in is not possible in Germany to appear as a simple citizen devoid of any religious views. Expressions of hatred and discriminations against Jews have a long record in Germany, where anti-Semitism found its very culmination under the Nazi regime in a system of institutionalized racism and of deliberate extermination. It is also well established that public hostility towards atheists is not less widespread as towards any other ethnic or religious minority group. Religious separateness imposed by the German state appears to me as a dangerous and unnecessary springboard to religious intolerance. If religious freedom exists in Germany, legal religious separation policies and practices are an evident limitation to the freedom of thought.

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