Should Berlin let Muslim pupils pray at school?
A ruling by a Berlin court allowing a 16-year-old Muslim pupil to pray towards Mecca in a separate room at school has raised questions about the extent of religious freedom in Germany. Some media, including the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, describe the ruling as a landmark case, saying it is the first time a German court has considered whether the right to practise religious beliefs should extend to schools.
The case arose in 2007 when the head of a school in Berlin, which has a strong secular tradition, forbid a boy and his friends from kneeling on their jackets to pray where they could be seen by other pupils.
The school argued it was religiously “neutral” but the boy, whose mother is Turkish and father is a German who converted to Islam, decided to go to court.
And they won.
Judge Uwe Wegener of Berlin’s Administrative Court wrote: “The plaintiff credibly showed he feels a religious obligation to pray according to Islamic custom five times a day at specific times.”
In the ruling, which makes clear the boy must pray outside lesson times to avoid disruption, the court also said Germany’s constitution guaranteed an individual the right to manifest one’s belief — which includes praying.
The case raises some interesting questions, including to what extent a Muslim can be flexible in delaying prayers and whether an institution like a school should have to put aside rooms for worship.
Religious leaders of various faiths welcomed the court decision. The KRM Coordinating Council for Muslims in Germany said it was pleased about the respect shown towards other peoples’ beliefs. “The ruling confirms the confidence Muslims have in our rule of law,” it said.
But media also reported teachers are worried the decision may encourage pupils to demand new prayer rooms in schools.
Berlin, home to Germany’s largest Muslim community, may be a slighly special case due to an institutionalised secular streak — for example, it is one of Germany’s only states to have compulsory ethics lessions and only optional religion courses.
How flexible should schools and individuals be about prayers?