The Ministry of Education has done an about-face and begun considering whether to add a section on religion to the comprehensive examination that high school seniors must pass before they can graduate. Students would not have to pass the religion component to obtain a diploma. They would simply have the choice of taking it if they wanted to. The ministry’s decision reverses the Prime Minister Donald Tusk administration’s stance on the religious-component issue in its earliest days in office.
News of the government’s about-face has touched off an angry debate on the subject. On one side are Catholic Church officials and politicians who support religious values. On the other side are those who want to keep religion out of schools.
Prime Minister Tusk said that although his administration is discussing the idea that the previously ruling right-wing party Law and Justice originally proposed, the government is far from making a decision on it. Church officials began pushing for a religion component in the comprehensive exam in 1999, according to Father Piotr Tomasik, who works on education issues for the Conference of Polish Bishops.
The ultra-conservative, pro-Catholic Law and Justice party began working on adding religion to the exam after it won the most seats in the lower house elections of 2005.
The education minister at the time, Roman Giertych, put together a plan for the religion component in 2006. Representatives of the Catholic Church, 12 other religions and religious associations worked with him on the plan.
With the help of this religious advisory group, Giertych produced a sample religion component for the exam.
When Ryszard Legutko replaced Giertych as education minister a few weeks before the end of the Law and Justice party’s two-year reign, he said he saw no reason for religion to be in the exam.
One of the archibishops, Slawoj Leszek Glodz apparently thought it was a Law and Justice double-cross. On Aug. 18, he threatened an all-out war over the issue, and Legutko relented.
The government drew up a plan to include religion in an exam to be given to 1,000 students at 50 schools in the spring of 2008.
Then the Civic Platform party ousted Law and Justice in the national elections of late October. The victors said they would drop the idea of putting a religious component in the comprehensive exam.
Church officials were apoplectic about the government turn-about. Archbishop of Warsaw Kazimierz Nycz demanded, and got, an audience with Deputy Minister of Education Krystyna Szumilas to discuss the issue.
Szumilas said after the meeting that she saw no problem continuing work on the proposal. Tusk’s statement later that no decision has been reached on the issue suggested that the government could back away from it, however.
The plan that church officials worked out with Giertych was to include religion in a list of subjects in the exam that high school seniors would not have to pass in order to obtain their diploma.
The current education minister, Katarzyna Hall, said that if some students want to show a mastery of religious content by passing a religion section of the exam, the ministry should make the component available to them.
Other Civic Platform officials oppose the idea. And the Left and Democrats party has threatened to sue if the Tusk administration decides to include a religion component in the exam. They believe such a move would be unconstitutional because it would be inserting religion into the educational process. Education experts point out that universities use scores on the comprehensive exam to help decide which students to admit. Thus, these experts say, the Education Ministry should draft all questions on the exam.
If a religious component is included in the exam, the experts say, the church will be deciding the questions, not the Education Ministry. That means the ministry will be ceding its authority for overseeing the exam to outsiders, these experts say. Tusk said that although he feels “great esteem for and sympathy toward Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz,” the decision about a religion component in the final exam will not be made in talks between government officials and “people from outside the government.” It will be made solely by government officials, he said.
The arch-Catholic Giertych said the Law and Justice government did so much work on the proposal that backing away from it now would amount to breaking a promise to the Catholic Church and others who championed it. “Any change is impossible without consultation with the Conference of Polish Bishops,” he added.
Left-leaning politicians detest the idea of a religion component in the exam. “It is a sign of primitive conservatism,” Jerzy Szmajdzinski, the deputy head of parliament, said in a radio interview. He is one of the leaders of the Union for Democratic Left Wing party.
He maintained that politicians should promote tolerance, openness and respect for all religions but not be involved in forcing into the comprehensive exam a section that basically deals with one denomination – Catholicism.
Introducing religion into the exam also would favor students wanting to go into university theology departments, he added. Beata Gorka, a spokeswoman for Catholic University of Lublin agreed that the religion-component results would help those interested in theology gain admission to universities that offer theology programs.
What does the public think about the issue? The polling group PBS DGA reported that more than 61 percent of Poles it polled for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper opposed the idea of a religion component in the comprehensive exam. Thirty-two percent supported the idea and seven percent were undecided.
Thus public sentiment is running 2 to 1 against the idea. Schools do not require students to take religion courses. Students can choose to take religion courses, can choose to take ethics courses or can choose to take neither.
Jaroslaw Zielinski, an MP and member of Law and Justice party’s chamber of ethics, said one out of three students at most schools take neither religion nor ethics courses. Tadeusz Bartos, a journalist who is also a theology expert, said on TOK FM radio that government officials should remember that they represent all Poles when they consider proposals to include such a religion component in the comprehensive exam.
The notion that a decision about the issue might be made in private talks between an archbishop and a deputy minister is unacceptable, he said.
There should be a public debate on the issue, he contended. The debate should include the question of “what is the function of religion as a school subject,” he said. Is that function instilling knowledge or proselytizing, he asked.
If the main function of teaching religion is instilling knowledge, then there is a case for including it in the comprehensive exam, he said. If it’s to proselytize, then it is inappropriate to include it in the exam, he suggested.