The plan of the Berlin Senator of Justice, Dirk Behrendt ( Green Party), to change the law on neutrality this year, has met with sharp disapproval from school headmasters in Berlin. The wearing of religious clothing and symbols in schools will be allowed.
For Karina Jehniche, this is a “fatal” plan. “The school must remain a neutral place where ordinary democratic values are taught,” the deputy chairperson of the Interest Group of Berlin School Principals (IBS) told the newspaper Tagesspiegel. The pedagogue speaks for about 300 senior teachers in the capital.In her concerns, she has both young primary school pupils and young learners at secondary schools in mind. Many young Muslim pupils say they will only marry a woman who wears a headscarf because she has certain moral values,” said Jeniche, who also runs the Christian Morgenstern School in Spandau.She sees the danger that pupils could demand to be taught only by a teacher wearing a headscarf. “We would pave the way for this discussion if the neutrality law were to be changed. Then it would no longer be about pedagogical skills, but about acceptance based on external symbols.” In a second step, parents could then suddenly demand that their children only be taught by teachers wearing headscarves.
The teacher has already had special experiences concerning very conservative Muslim parents at her own school. At and after parents’ meetings, her completely normal but body-hugging clothing was the topic of conversation. It was mentioned disapprovingly by Muslim mothers and fathers that she allegedly did not dress Islamically enough.
At the Morgenstern primary school, an eleven-year-old Muslim had also threatened his teacher with beheading if the teacher insisted that the boy’s parents come to a parent-teacher meeting.The next problem for Jehniche: “Up to now, as headmistress, I have been hiring the teachers I would like to have on my own. I decide according to pedagogical aspects and see if someone fits into the team. But if the headscarf is now allowed to be worn, do I have to hire someone with a headscarf on a quota basis, even though I’m not convinced of their pedagogical abilities? And if I don’t, do I even have to justify my decision?”
There are special aspects to consider at a primary school. “For young children, the teacher is an important reference person, she virtually takes part in the family,” says Jehniche. “What the teacher says, they approve of.” The problem arises when little girls and boys ask a teacher why she wears a headscarf. “She can then either say she doesn’t answer that question, or she then has to refer to her religious beliefs.
Do we allow such personal religious discussions to take place in a public school? Is school allowed to be a space where people discuss such private matters with students? We want to give suggestions and educate broadly based humanistically, but not push children in one direction.”Of course, everyone is free to choose their religion, but an educator should not encourage people to follow a certain direction. This applies to all religious symbols. School has the task to inform about religion, but not to judge which religion is better than others. “I fear that someone who wears a headscarf can no longer credibly provide this neutrality.”
Justice Senator Behrendt’s plans are a reaction to a decision by the Federal Labour Court in Erfurt. In August 2020, the court ruled that Berlin could not ban a Muslim applicant for a teaching position from wearing a headscarf. She had been denied a lateral entry position.
According to the court, the ban on wearing religious symbols in class, which is contained in Berlin’s neutrality law, constitutes an inadmissible encroachment on religious freedom. The judges referred to the requirements of the Federal Constitutional Court and demanded that the law be interpreted in a way that complies with the constitution: Only a concrete danger to the peace of the school or the neutrality of the state could justify a headscarf ban.Peter Stolz is also critical of Behrendt’s plans. “A teacher has to support all her pupils in a neutral way, but that will not work credibly if someone lives her Islamic faith so demonstratively,” said the chairman of the Berlin branch of the Association of History Teachers in Germany. For girls, it will be even more difficult than it already is to freely choose a religion if their teacher covers her head for religious reasons.And should a teacher with a headscarf teach in a class with almost exclusively Muslim boys and girls: “How does she behave when it comes to the question of how to evaluate the murder of a teacher like Samuel Paty, who was murdered because of Mohammed cartoons? Does she argue on the basis of the Basic Law?”, said Stolz.