Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany

Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany

Despite an official separation, the influence of Christian churches in Germany persists, marked by a complex web of agreements and privileges. From the evolving religious landscape to the challenges of discrimination, we delve into the nuances that shape the unique German experience of balancing faith and governance.

The Situation of Church and State in Germany

In times of religiously legitimized fundamental terrorism, religion is obviously still playing a big role in the ways of the world. Though it’s easy to think the world would be quite secularized, the great religions are in fact gaining in numbers. And despite every society usually viewing itself as the norm, Germany is indeed one of the exceptions when it comes to its religious make-up.

Taking into consideration that having a denomination doesn’t necessarily mean you are a particularly religious or faithful person, still more than half of the German population is a member of either the Catholic or the Protestant churches.

In addition, circa 5,5 % of Germans are part of another denomination, such as Islam or Judaism. The rest of the population is undenominational, which means roughly 30 Million of 80 Million people. What makes Germany one of the exceptions is that above all the two large Christian churches have continuously been losing members, and are going on to do so.

In any case, the Catholic and Lutheran churches are still of utmost importance in Germany. So, let us take a look at the relationship between church and state in the country.

Bound by Contract

Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany

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In Germany, the relationship between the state and the two major churches is defined by a contract. The foundation of this contract is the separation of church and state, which in turn can be traced back to the French Revolution and the development of laicism. The term laicism is derived from the French word “laïc”, which originally meant anyone who was not part of the clergy.

A laical state is thus one that bases its values not or at least not only on religious commandments and that ultimately places religion in the private life of its citizens. Germany is almost a laical state, in that there is an official separation of church and state.

The Federal Constitutional Court and “Constructive Neutrality” Towards Religions

The constitution and Basic Law of the German state mandates a commitment to impartial treatment of religions and worldviews. The state is prohibited from aligning itself with any particular religious or ideological stance.

While the term “neutral” does not imply opposition or indifference to religions, there is a recognized political consensus that views religions as contributors to societal cohesion. The Federal Constitutional Court has recommended the adoption of a policy of “constructive neutrality” by the state towards religions and worldviews.

Church Tax

However, the Bundesrepublik collects a special church tax (though only from those who actually are church members) for the churches. In return, churches compensate the tax authorities for their efforts. Additionally, Christian holidays are statutory in Germany. But, Churches, respectively organizations that have equal contracts with the state, profit, even more, form German law. They legally are charitable organizations, which has an impact on the taxes they have to pay.

Further, the salaries of bishops and religion teachers (who are not allowed to teach without the consent of their respective church) are being paid by the state, not through church taxes but out of the budget that pays civil servants. At the same time, the churches are able to dictate the rules of the working environments.

The maintenance of buildings owned by the church is also financed by all taxpayers. In numbers, that’s a sum of about 450 Million Euro each year (not including the church tax). Thus, the Christian churches in Germany are definitely privileged in comparison to other religious organizations.

As mentioned before, the details of these issues are defined in state contracts, the so-called concordats with the Vatican and the Church-State Treaties with the Protestant Church. A very few other representative religious organizations, such as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, have coherent contracts with the Bundesrepublik.

As there are many smaller religious organizations that do not have equivalent contracts with the state and merely count as e.g. non-profit associations, it is noteworthy that these kinds of contracts are very special. As you see, we can’t really speak of a complete separation of church and state.    

Religious Communities in Germany

Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany

Religious dynamics in Germany were significantly shaped by the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, leading to a division among German Christians between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 established the principle that, with some exceptions, the inhabitants of each German territory should adhere to the religion of their ruler. As a result, the southern and western regions became predominantly Roman Catholic, while the north and east leaned towards Protestant churches. This religious divide had profound effects on cultural, personal, social, and economic aspects.

Population movements during and after World War II played a role in evening the numbers of Protestant and Catholic adherents in Western Germany. In former West Germany, the church tax, levied alongside income tax, was widely accepted, contributing to the support of community centers, hospitals, senior citizens’ facilities, group homes, and the construction of church buildings in the former East Germany.

Religion’s central role in Germany has also translated into religious leaders, particularly the Roman Catholic hierarchy, occasionally wielding considerable influence on political decisions regarding social issues such as abortion. In East Germany, Protestants outnumbered Roman Catholics by a considerable margin. Despite nominal guarantees of religious freedom in the constitution, religious affiliation was discouraged. As of the end of 2016, out of Germany’s total population of 82.8 million, 28.5% identified as Roman Catholics, 26.5% as Protestants, 4.9% as Muslims, 3.9% as followers of other religions, and 36.2% claimed no religious belief.

The relatively low number of Protestants, especially in East Germany, is surprising given the country’s role as the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. The decline in Protestant membership, particularly in the former East Germany, is attributed to the anti-religious policies of the socialist government from 1949 to 1990. During the 1950s, around 50% of Germans were Protestant, and 46% were Roman Catholic.

New Religions

However, in subsequent decades, membership in Christian churches nationwide saw a decline, a trend that continues today, while non-Christian religions, particularly Islam, are on the rise. Most Muslims in Germany are either migrants or descendants of former migrants. The emergence of new religious groups also poses constitutional law challenges, as the provisions of the Basic Law date back to the Weimar Constitution of 1919, reflecting a time when Germany’s religious structure and landscape was significantly different.

Religious Education within the School Curriculum

As per Article 7, paragraph 3 of the Basic Law religious instruction is an integral part of the regular curriculum in state schools, excluding non-denominational schools. While the state retains supervisory authority, religious instruction must align with the principles of the respective religious community. Teachers cannot be compelled against their will to provide religious instruction. Although the article specifically references religious communities, states have the discretion to permit ideological associations to offer classes on their ideologies in schools.

Today, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches predominantly conduct religious classes in public schools, with a few states allowing minority religions like Orthodox Christians and Jews to also provide such instruction. Notably, Hesse is the first German state to introduce Islamic religious classes in its schools.

It’s important to note that students are not obligated to participate in religious classes; they can opt out. For students under the age of fourteen, parents hold the right to make this decision on their behalf, underscoring their constitutional entitlement to determine whether their children receive religious instruction.

Religious Discrimination

In 2020, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency received consultation requests, with 5 % focused on issues related to religious characteristics and an additional two percent concerning belief systems. Discrimination based on religion is influenced by the visibility of one’s religious affiliation, leading to varying forms of discrimination depending on the faith involved. Instances of hostility or insults in everyday situations are frequently reported by Jews, while Muslim women wearing headscarves often encounter discrimination, particularly in employment contexts.

All recognized religious affiliations, as well as individuals with no religious affiliation, are generally protected from discrimination. However, the ‘church privilege’ in Germany allows church employers to impose specific requirements on employees under certain circumstances. This becomes a recurring theme in inquiries to the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, such as when a non-denominational individual faces job denial in a Christian hospital.

The European Court of Justice has provided detailed definitions of this privilege, emphasizing that loyalty to the Church ethos cannot be universally demanded for all activities. Furthermore, the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) prohibits discrimination based on a particular belief system. However, German court decisions clarify that this protection is limited to comprehensive attitudes shaping an individual’s overall worldview, excluding aspects like party affiliations or opinions on specific societal issues. Notably, the AGG’s safeguarding of beliefs is confined to the realm of employment.

FAQs about religious communities in Germany

Here are also some of the questions people ask about the separation of church and state in Germany

Are church and state separate in Germany?

Yes, church and state are separate in Germany. The Basic Law, Germany’s constitution, outlines principles of religious freedom, and Article 7 emphasizes the autonomy of religious communities. The state is neutral and does not identify with any particular religion.

What is the state religion of Germany?

Germany does not have an official state church or religion. The country promotes religious freedom, and individuals are free to practice any religion or none at all. The state is neutral in matters of religion, as outlined in the constitution.

Is Germany more Catholic or Protestant?

The official count of church members may not accurately reflect the true number of individuals identifying as Catholic or Protestant. Still, according to statistics, Christianity is the largest religious group in Germany, with around 44.9 million adherents (52.7%) in 2021, of whom 21.6 million are Catholics (26.0%) and 19.7 million are Protestants (23.7%).

What percent of Germany is Catholic?

As of 2021, approximately 26.0% of the German population identifies as Catholic.

When did Germany become Catholic?

The Roman Catholic faith was accepted in some parts of Germany from the 5 century AC onward. In the 1200s, German Crusaders, known as the Teutonic Knights, conquered pagan Prussia and converted it to Catholicism.

Which church in Germany is on the World Heritage Site list?

The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) in Germany is on the World Heritage Site list. This iconic cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and a significant cultural and has been a historical symbol in Germany over the centuries.

When completed in 1880 based on surviving Medieval plans, the building was the largest church in Germany. Its twin spires were surpassed in height only by the steeple at Ulm. Badly damaged during WWII, it nevertheless remained standing and is still the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and remains the third tallest church of any kind in the world.

Summing Up: Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany

In Germany, the separation of church and state is a nuanced tapestry woven with historical threads and legal intricacies. The country’s religious dynamics, educational practices, and anti-discrimination efforts underscore the continuous evolution of this relationship.

As new religions emerge and societal attitudes shift, Germany grapples with maintaining neutrality while recognizing the cultural significance of its dominant Christian traditions. The delicate balance between individual beliefs and institutional privileges remains a focal point, reflecting a complex journey towards harmony in the diverse religious landscape of modern Germany.