Germany: Voters decide the fate of faith in Berlin schools
Controversial referendum to determine if students get the option to study ethics or religion
In the United States, teaching religion in public schools is political dynamite. In France, forget it. But in Germany they've done it for decades. Except, that is, in Berlin, where postwar policies framed with help from the old Soviet Union have kept faith out of the classrooms. But in a city that sociologist Peter Berger once called "the world capital of modern atheism," a surprisingly robust grass-roots Pro-Reli movement by churches is challenging the traditional ethics classes that they say are poor substitutes for the religion teaching offered to other German pupils.
The churches seem to have captured a moment – along with a whopping 256,000 signatures for a referendum on the topic. They flooded streets with posters asking for a "free choice between ethics and religion." The result is a hot battle over values and city identity.
Today, Berliners are voting on whether to keep the required ethics class or broaden the curriculum to include a required class on a religion – Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and others. Ethics is one of the options.
"There is nothing wrong with ethics classes, if they are neutral," says Christoph Lehmann, a devout Catholic and lawyer who started the Pro-Reli cause at his living room table a year ago. "But religious tradition is about creating a standpoint in life, and we feel the ethics class doesn't do this as well."
At the forefront of the debate is the issue of integrating Muslims. Berlin now has more than 200,000 Muslim students – almost half the student body in some districts. Exposing Muslim children to the Koran from teachers accredited through the state is seen by many Berliners as a check on extreme readings of Islam; and this is a key selling point for the pro-religion cause. "In a broader perspective, looking 20 years ahead, what's most important is the issue of Muslims," says Ralf Meister, a Pro-Reli advocate and general superintendent of the Lutheran Church in Berlin. "We don't solve a single problem with Muslims through the ethics class. We need a place where Muslims can learn some established facts about their religion."
Indeed, the falling apple for the ethics class was a 2005 "honor killing" of a Turkish woman that shocked this city. Following the murder, ethics classes became a required part of the curriculum.
For many churchgoers, however, the cure was seen as worse than the problem. Complaints arose that in a school day already taxing young minds, adding the ethics course eroded support and time for what had been a system of voluntary religion classes. Protestant and Catholic parents, mostly from the west side of the city, said ethics was slanted and undercut or trivialized faith traditions.
The Berlin debate blurs traditional left-right lines: Some theologians support ethics, while some leading Social Democrats back religion. The Pro-Ethik camp, as it is known, sees its program as a responsible way to teach citizenship and democracy, while also promoting dialogue among a diverse student body in something that's more subjective than math or science. "Kids from different origins should not be divided into different religions and into different classes," says Gerhard Weil, spokesman for Pro-Ethik. "We find it is better if all children can discuss ethical problems together."
One Pro-Reli parent, Julia Sebastian, says ethics courses vary with the teacher, but that the nod to religion in them sometimes boils down to students doing show-and-tell: "Muslim seventh-graders would bring a prayer carpet. Russian Orthodox kids brought a crucifix. And they are on the spot to explain their religion in front of the others. It's ridiculous."
One Catholic father is glad for religious diversity in ethics teaching but says, "My son knows more about Ramadan than Lent."
Public school religion classes here don't advocate the practice or "exercise" of a particular faith. They include deeper instruction in traditions and texts – but no prayers, services, or proselytizing. Religion advocates say a mandated class will bring better and more sympathetic teaching, since churches, mosques, and temples will have a say in the faith quotient of those teaching their tradition.
How well state-licensed teachers of religion would do with a plethora of minority faiths that diverge from the mainstream is largely unanswered by Pro-Reli circles. It is one reason the idea would probably cause strife in a diverse religious nation like the US, a country with more than a hundred Protestant sects and a First Amendment tradition of church-state separation.
In Berlin, the aims of Pro-Reli are more general. "Can religious education promote or hinder tolerance?" asks Mr. Meister, the Lutheran leader. "The debate is so emotional because it is getting to these basic questions and fears. We think a real encounter with religion can promote tolerance."
Pro-Reli organizers started small, with street petitions outside churches. The enthusiastic response stunned them: At one point, there were crowds of 20,000 in a single day. Movement leader Lehmann says it proves that "Berliners aren't hard-core atheists just because they don't declare themselves churchgoers."
Pro-Reli has been lionized by celebrities, bishops, and TV personalities, causing some in the ethics camp to call it a fad. Attack ads funded by the Pro-Ethik camp charge that the referendum could result in "mandatory" religion and raise the specter of church prelate hordes trying to snare young minds. Lehmann calls the ads unfair. The issue, he says, is mandatory choice (a course in religion or ethics) versus compulsory ethics.
Last month, Pro-Reli took an unexpected body blow from the Senate in Berlin, which leans toward keeping ethics. Originally, the vote on the referendum was scheduled for early June, along with European parliamentary elections – a concurrence that would no doubt bring more people to the polls. The Senate shifted the referendum to a single-issue vote on April 26.
Whether or not that move is ethical, it is certainly political: For the measure to pass, one-quarter of Berlin's voting population (600,000 out of 2.4 million) must feel strongly enough about religion in schools to come out and cast a "yes" ballot.
Feminist social theories put to the test
A dissertation at Orebro University in Sweden brings to light major weaknesses in feminist social theories. They are untenable, far too undeveloped, and laden with insoluble internal problems of logic.
“Feminist social theories provide us with an ideologically colored picture of society,” maintains Helen Lindberg. "As social scientists, we are duty-bound to follow a scientific ethos, otherwise no one benefits, not even women. Instead it hurts the struggle for gender equality. I am writing this dissertation in the hope that it will further the struggle for gender equality in society.”
The dissertation examines four comprehensive theories that each claims to address the issue of how we should be able to understand and explain gender inequality and the unbalanced power relations between the sexes today. The theories - Anna G. Jónasdóttir’s Theory of Love Power, Catharine M. MacKinnon’s radical feminism, Luce Irigaray’s gynocentric distinctivist feminism, and Judith Butler’s queer feminism - are very different from each other and offer different answers to the question.
Helen Lindberg feels it is unfruitful to use the theories for social scientific research on gender relations, since they rest on starkly ideological foundations and evince faulty internal coherence.
The theories offer little or no scope for the individual to be able to change or develop society and have difficulties accomodating empirical evidence. The dissertation also discusses the political goals that the theories can be seen as leading to. “Some of them are clearly utopian and others are vague and quite undeveloped,” says Helen Lindberg.
Helen Lindberg points to the splintering within the Swedish political party Feminist Initiative as an example of what happens in politics when the various feminist ideological positions meet.
It was not only that the party consisted of different strong-willed individuals. The members also based their convictions on different feminist ideologies, and when they were not compatible, strife ensued.
Instead, feminist social theories, like other normative and ideologically based social theories, such as Marxism and Liberalism, should be regarded as aids in establishing what problems need to be addressed. Helen Lindberg also points out that there is a parallel between Marxism and feminism regarding their development as scientific and ideological projects in that both have always had a close relationship with liberation-oriented political action.
Helen Lindberg also points to the development from feminism to postfeminism. Post feminism rejects the fundamentals of feminist theory and the previous foundations. Postfeminism shifts and expands the feminist focus from the relation between women and men to also include gender identities regardless of sex, for example, as urgent both as a research focus and for political attention.
In her youth Helen Lindberg was fascinated by Marxist-oriented radical feminism, but she found it wanting when it came to dealing with the experiences of different women. “Writing the dissertation has been like plunging into a fierce wrestling match with my own convictions,” says Helen Lindberg.
British family courts system accused of hiding evidence from parents
Parents fighting in the family courts for contact with their children are being denied access to their personal files by a corrupt system, a leading parental rights campaigner has said. Alison Stevens, head of Parents Against Injustice, has called for Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to force social services and individual courts to comply with the Data Protection Act. She said: “Local authorities have to send the requested files within 40 days . . . but they are often not following public law guidelines. It’s corruption within the system. They are playing God, and there must be some reason why — perhaps to hide things they have got wrong in the cases.”
Evidence is gathered from a variety of sources before children are taken from their parents in family courts. Tracking down and obtaining these documents can be very difficult because they are held by various bodies and must be applied for in different ways.
Ms Stevens said: “Parents should be entitled to their files — not just social services files but all files: from health visitors, GPs, different hospitals, the ambulance trust, psychologist reports, paediatrician notes and so on.”
The Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has written to all MPs calling for a parliamentary review into the operation of the family courts. He said: “One of the ways legal practitioners prevent parents from fighting cases is by not giving them the paperwork. Often the paperwork doesn’t add up, so if parents got hold of it they would see what was going on.”
Many parents have welcomed the call for greater accountability. Roland Simpkin (not his real name) received his social services files seven years after his children were taken into care in 2001 amid allegations of abuse. When the allegations were shown to be unfounded, he sought to obtain the evidence held on him by social services to find out why he was still not allowed to see his children. He was sent his files last year, after pursuing his case through a series of letters, complaints and court orders, but he found that parts of the notes had been crossed through with black pen, words had been deleted and sections of paragraphs had been removed during photocopying.
Mr Simpkin said: “Despite being repeatedly found not to have harmed or posed a risk of harm to \ children or anybody else’s, the sheer amount of delay introduced by the sluggishness of the social services department to share information is likely to be a serious negative factor in any potential repeated contact \.”
In another case, Marc Tufano, an actor who has appeared in EastEnders and The Bill, has not seen his two sons for seven years because he cannot obtain the documents that he needs to bring his case to appeal. His children were given residence with his partner in 2003 after their relationship broke down. Though he immediately tried to launch an appeal, he said that he had found it impossible to obtain transcripts of the original court hearings because the court authorities had been slow to reply to his requests and had since claimed to have destroyed the documents.
Mr Tufano said: “I have begged these government agents to leave me alone so as I can see my sons without being harassed by endless arguments over the paperwork they require. It is made impossible for parents to get hold of the documents they need.”
Sezgi Kapur’s two daughters were taken from her in 2003 amid allegations that her violent attitude towards care professionals could be harmful to her children, allegations she denies.
Before the hearings in the family court, her requests for her social services files were ignored or denied, and she was forced to apply for court orders to disclose the documents. Without them, Ms Kapur was unable to respond to the evidence gathered against her by social services and care workers, and so was unable to fight her case effectively.
After the files were provided, she discovered that the minutes from high-level social services meetings about her case had been withheld and that memos had been circulated to those who attended asking them to “destroy all previous copies” of notes from the meeting.
Ms Kapur said: “These meetings painted a picture of me as a volatile, aggressive, threatening individual who was alienating professionals, who might one day emotionally harm my children through this purported alienation. It was incredible to read this. “I fired six sets of solicitors because they failed to get disclosure of all my documents. If the parents do not get a fair trial, the children do not either.”
Shaun O’Connell, a lay adviser working on behalf of Environmental Law Centre, said: “If you’re not familiar with the Data Protection Act and you don’t know the format and structure, it’s impossible.”
Australia: Why the lenient sentences for egregious criminals?
I documented long ago how great the gap is between what the courts deliver and what the public want. Nothing seems to have changed. Note the latest episode: "A driver who veered onto the wrong side of the road and killed a motorcyclist while tuning his car radio has walked free from court". I think many will see no reason why negligence causing death should be treated any differently from murder yet the courts are completely indulgent of such episodes
From my reading, Australian courts are somewhat more punitive than British courts but not as punitive as U.S. courts. There are however a lot of what seem very lenient sentences from some American courts too -- JR
I reckon the judiciary has a magisterial disdain for what you and I believe is justice. They certainly talk the talk. Judge Felicity Hampel thundered at stalker and nasty child pornographer Ross Andrew Sargent that he was predatory, and his secret toilet videos were a gross violation of the women and girls he filmed - then slashed his jail sentence to two months.
Judge Margaret Rizkalla had similarly harsh words for Matthew James Vernon, one of Victoria's worst sexual offenders. He raped an 11-year-old he was babysitting, and the poor girl had Vernon's child, an unimaginable physical and psychological trauma. "The complainant is now torn between the world of being a mother and the world of being a child,'' Rizkalla observed. "It cannot be overlooked, but the child will be a constant reminder (of Vernon's shocking and selfish crime),'' she said sternly - before sentencing him to a fraction of the decades he could have received.
Judge Roland Leckie was on to serial killer Peter Dupas's shortcomings 25 years ago. Sentencing Dupas in 1985 for a knife-wielding rape - and knowing his violently dark past - he told the convicted man, "there is a strong possibility of your reoffending'', and then let him serve relatively light sentences, concurrently, as well. Tragically, Nostradamus had nothing on the prescient Leckie. So far there's been lots of talking, but not much walking.
Last week there was more talk around killer-driver Brett Franklin, whose sentence for claiming the lives of sisters Glenda Thomson and Michelle Hurst, and seriously injuring Glenda's daughter Tara, has been reduced on appeal to just 5 years. It was a lenient sentence to begin with. The work of young, drunk, irresponsible drivers is one of the bigger issues in the community.
"We will catch you,'' warned Assistant Commissioner for Traffic Ken Lay on television and in billboards across the state over Christmas. And in Franklin's case they did get their man, if the young bloke can ever be called one. Franklin had previously lost his licence for speeding. On the night he killed Glenda and Michelle in a TAC ad come to life, he was about three times over the legal limit and friends begged him not to drive. Franklin knew better and, showing off doing burnouts and fish-tailing, his V8 lost control.
His original sentence would have seen him behind bars for only seven years, not much when you plead guilty to charges that could see you cop 20 years each on the two main counts - and you have form. Franklin also pleaded guilty to two charges of negligently causing serious injury. Now things get interesting, Judge John Smallwood complaining that the five-year maximum sentence for this too low.
That was a coincidence. Six days earlier Judge Joe Gullaci had dealt with a Brendon James Healey. Healey, driving drunk, had hit and almost killed Jordynne Wilkie, 6, along with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. JUDGE Gullaci said it had been a miracle that Healey, who jumped bail and fled overseas, had not wiped out four generations of the same family. He also commented that the five-year maximum sentence for negligently causing serious injury was inadequate - but then gave Healey a minimum sentence of four years when the bloke pleaded guilty to four of the offences, and why don't we chuck in speeding, skipping bail and exceeding .05 for bad measure?
Attorney-General Rob Hulls was listening. As shadow attorney-general he had pledged he would review sentencing laws, aware that we wanted tough penalties for serious offenders. In 2007, Hulls wrote to the Sentencing Advisory Council seeking advice on the maximum penalty for negligently causing serious injury, later doubling it from five years to 10. The Government was "committed to ensuring that adequate maximum sentences are in place'' he was reported saying at the time.
But that's just talk. You can increase as many maximum sentences as you like, but if the judiciary won't apply them, or anything getting near to them, then it's just legislation taking up shelf space. According to figures compiled by the Sentencing Advisory Council, the number of people jailed after being convicted in the higher courts of causing injury intentionally or recklessly is extraordinarily low, about one in five. Another one in four receives a ``wholly suspended sentence'' - ie, they walk. MANY others get community-based orders. Gee, I can feel that soggy lettuce thrashing the backs of my legs right now.
So what about the more serious culpable driving - you've killed someone and it's your fault? The Sentencing Advisory Council says of those convicted of this between 2001 and 2006: "Imprisonment terms ranged from one year to 12 years and three months, while the median length of imprisonment was five years.'' That should break your heart. More than 100 drivers have killed more than 100 of us for a median penalty of five years' jail. The worst offender received about 60 per cent of the possible maximum. That's why you might not be safe on the roads. If a bunch of those drivers was serving the 20 years behind bars, the Brett Franklins and Brendon Healeys of this world might think twice. We should be outraged. To the maximum. It's time to help judges see things our way
THERE are few more acute moments in the life of a democracy than when one person sits in judgment on another. It is a burdensome responsibility in which those we appoint must rise above any petty reactions of the aggrieved and look beyond simple biblical punishments that remain popular, but are these days mostly meted out drunkenly in pubs. We no longer take an eye for an eye, but we have turned the other cheek too far.
Our judiciary acts without prejudice or bias, and is objective. But our judges and magistrates go easy on lawbreakers and, I believe, are failing us with sentences that do not reflect community attitudes and that too often are well short of what their authors expected. Too often, criminals receive quite light sentences, appeal them, and are further rewarded with even lighter sentences. The Sunday Herald Sun reported earlier this month that our Court of Appeals had slashed 116 years of jail time off killers, rapists and drug dealers in the past 16 months. Those precedents further damage our faith in the system because they become part of "current sentencing practices''.
I would like to see every judge and magistrate's performance recorded and constantly updated. We should be able to look up their sentencing records. Legal fraternity insiders know the hanging judges and those who go easy - so why can't we? Why doesn't every sentencing decision record what percentage of the possible maximum has just been delivered? It would shock many people to know how infrequently a robust sentence is handed down. Each of those percentage figures should be filed against a name. Soon, an insightful profile of the sentencing inclinations of judges would emerge and we could deal with any anomalies.
We have a right to know the judges whose decisions are most regularly challenged in the Appeals Court. We have a right to know which judges' have the most decision overturned. Let's put an end to concurrent sentences. They are not sentences at all.
LET'S have no time off for good behaviour. Add time for bad behaviour, and plenty of it.
Finally, given how out of touch so may magistrates and judges seem to be, let's learn from the successful Operation Beacon, in which all operational police, more than 8000 of them, were retrained throughout 1994 after a series of unnecessary shooting deaths sparked public uproar. Almost immediately, the shootings stopped and the reputation of Victoria Police recovered.
We need an Operation Beacon for the Victorian judiciary in which every magistrate and judge is "retrained'' - familiarised once more with the contours of common thought, the great aggregates of opinion held by the society in which they work. Judicial life is privileged, exclusive and too often isolated. We can fix that. We should.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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