Poland resists secularization

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.

The Church became the main protector of the Solidarity trade union and of the anti-communist resistance in the 1980s, gaining enormous sympathy from most Poles. That sympathy has eroded over the years — particularly in the early 1990s, when an overweening Church injected itself into public life — but the Church's position is still immensely powerful.

In communist times religion was banned from schools, but it made a return in the 1990s, when Poland ratified a concordat with the Vatican. The curriculum is prepared by the Church, not the ministry of education, and the teachers are also chosen by religious authorities, not the school director. The program is supposed to be based on knowledge, not piety, but there have been cases of catechists marking pupils according to their participation in the life of their local parish.

Theoretically, religion is supposed to be offered together with a secular ethics course, but the vast majority of Polish schools have shied away from offering the subject, citing high costs and low interest. According to the education ministry, ethics is offered in only 334 of Poland's 32,000 schools, while religion is offered in 27,500 schools.

Making religion an official grade was the brainchild of Roman Giertych, the right-wing education minister in the previous government who was in thrall to the ultra-Catholic Radio Maryja network and its charismatic leader, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk.

Although he is no longer in politics, an ebullient Giertych celebrated the constitutional court's decision, saying: “The post-communists suffered a defeat and I'm glad that the tribunal decided I was acting according to the law.”

Many Polish politicians think in a similar fashion to Giertych, trying to avoid a conflict with the Church whenever possible, and taking public stances designed to appeal to true believers. Three years ago, a group of 46 members of parliament even tried to push through a bill that would have named Jesus Christ as the king of Poland.

While the left in traditionally Catholic European countries like Spain and Italy is strong and anti-clerical, Poland's shattered ex-communist rump — which has only about 10 percent support in opinion polls — has made an accommodation with the extraordinary role the Church continues to play in Polish life.

“Our words and our policies should be well-considered,” writes Szmajdzinski, the senior member of the Democratic Left Alliance. “That means we should give it a break with suggestions of the type: remove chaplains from the military ... or stop the financing of catechism from the budget.”