Connect to share and comment

Poland resists secularization

From crosses in the classroom to religious education, Poland breaks with the European norm.

The shadow of a rosary cross is seen during a Corpus Christi procession in Mrokow, near Warsaw, June 11, 2009. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Earlier this month Poland's parliament voted to express "concern" over a ruling by the European Human Rights Tribunal that crosses hung in classrooms could violate the rights of parents.

Then, Poland's highest court decided that grades in religion class should be included on Polish students' transcripts.

Together the vote and the decision show that this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country is, officially at least, resisting the general European trend toward secularization.

In an echo of the stern defense of the cross mounted recently by Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the Polish parliament noted that "the sign of the cross is not only a religious symbol and a sign of God's love for humanity, but in the public sphere it is a reminder of the readiness to sacrifice for another person."

The vote took place in the main hall of the Polish parliament, where two right-wing members clambered up a ladder late at night in 1997 and hung up a cross, which despite protests has remained in place ever since.

In the education case, a group of ex-communist members filed the complaint, charging that putting religion marks in official school transcripts violates the separation of church and state and limits the right of parents to raise their children. However, the court found that including religion among the final grades was actually an expression of religious freedom.

“Teaching religion is one of the indications of religious freedom in light of the current standards of a pluralistic democratic society,” said the ruling. “It is not the role of the state to impose a religion program and reduce it to a study of religions.”

The ruling was just the latest in a long run of constitutional court decisions favoring the teaching of religion in schools, hanging crosses in classrooms, saying prayers in schools and paying catechism teachers from public funds.

The ex-communist left tends to be very skeptical of the presence of the Catholic Church in Poland's public life. Jerzy Szmajdzinski, one of the senior members of the Democratic Left Alliance party, recently complained that priests and bishops have become a part of almost every official celebration, “Even such God-fearing places as sewage plants and jacuzzis are now being blessed,” he wrote.

The problem for the left is that about 95 percent of Poles consider themselves to be Roman Catholic, although the number of regular worshippers is about half that number. Many people also remember the communist persecution of religion in the four decades after World War II. In the early post-war years priests were arrested by the officially atheist state, and in later years apparatchiks made it almost impossible to build new churches and harassed believers.