Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Parents hit out at creeping Catholicism in Spanish schools

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MADRID

Jose Luis Yague says he does not mind the Nativity scene or the carved statue of St. Christopher that adorns his 5-year-old daughter's public school in the city center. But the teacher who stands at the entrance each morning, "wooing the children to choose her class" on Roman Catholicism, is too much, he says.

"You don't see the English or German teacher saying, `Come to my class, it's great fun,"' said Yague, a self-described atheist. "I fail to understand the support still given to religion by this supposedly secular state."

While Frence President Jacques Chirac has called for a ban on religious symbols in public schools, the conservative administration of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in Spain, who favors a mention of Christianity in a future European constitution, has passed a law to strengthen the presence of the Roman Catholic Church in the Spanish schools. National teachers unions, parents associations and opposition political parties have reacted with outrage.

Under the law, all students must take a class each year on Roman Catholic dogma, taught by church appointees and intended for practicing Catholics, or an alternative, secular class on world religions that education officials say offers a historical approach but that opposition party leaders contend is similar to the Catholicism class. The religion grades count toward final averages, which determine promotions and eligibility for competitive university programs.

The curriculum in the Catholicism class includes the church's position on divorce, sex and abortion, as well as basic theology.

Until now, an optional course on Roman Catholicism was offered during school hours but was not graded.

"Students now have to devote more class hours to studying religion than studying physics or chemistry," said Justo Lopez Cirujeda, president of the Spanish Teachers Union, one of several groups and regional governments that have filed suit since September in Spain's Constitutional Court to try to block the new law.

The French ban on religious symbols, coming days before the official release of the religious curriculum here, gave support to critics like Lopez and helped to mobilize proponents of secular education.

"Our ultimate objective is to take religion out of public schools completely," said Maite Pina, president of a federation of 11,500 parents associations linked to public schools. "But we are still light-years away from France. We can't even start to talk about whether or not to ban head scarves while there are still large crucifixes hanging in public schools and there are nuns in habits who teach pupils with state funds."

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