Editor’s Note: The first half of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Summer 2005): 9-10.
Religious education in state high schools was already operative in Latvia before World War II. Educational laws of 1919 and 1934 included provisions for confessional religion classes, both in primary and secondary schools, following the experience of Scandinavian countries.1
Religion classes were reintroduced into Latvian public schools in 1991, immediately after independence and the restoration of religious freedom. The Law on Religious Organizations that guaranteed freedom of conscience allowed children to choose between religion and ethics or to study both.2 From 1991 to 1996, Latvia’s religion classes of various kinds were taught as electives on the initiative of the principal and/or individual teachers. Teachers of religion had to design their own curricular materials. Each school paid religion teachers according to its resources with teachers, more often than not, working for free.
In 1993, the Ministry of Education and Science established the Inter-Confessional Collegium of Religious Education in which leaders of the five traditional churches — Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, and Old Believers — together with officials from the Ministry of Education started a discussion on the common curriculum for religious education in public schools. Initially it was not planned to follow the confessional approach in state schools. Rather, members of the Collegium discussed the possibilities of designing a common ecumenical curriculum introducing the biblical and moral basics of Christian faith.3
The Confessional Approach
However, in 1994 Janis Cardinal Pujats changed his position and started active advocacy for the confessional approach. According to Juris Rubenis, “The other churches then had to decide whether to continue working along ecumenical lines, in spite of the fact that Christian unity had been disrupted, or to fall in with the denominational model offered by Catholics. They chose the latter course.”4
In 1996, despite the disapproval of the Ministry of Education and Science, Latvia’s Parliament passed an Amendment to the Law on Religious Organizations, which granted support to the confessional approach. Teachers of religion had to belong to and be certified by one of five traditional Christian churches — Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Orthodox, and Old Believer. Each church trained its own teachers of religion and developed its own curricular materials, which had to be approved by the Ministry of Education and Science.5
While the confessional approach was being repeatedly supported, advocated, and financed on the official level, its way into the educational practice in state schools was thorny. Schools that dealt with children belonging to various confessions found it very difficult to introduce the confessional approach in its pure form, except for some religiously homogenous regions such as Latgale (the eastern part of Latvia, which is predominantly Roman Catholic). In addition, the confessional approach was under constant pressure of a sharp critique in mass media.6
Alternative Models of Religious Education
At the same time, individual religious educators continue to work on alternative models of religious education in Latvian public schools. For example, Laima Geikina, a high school teacher of religion and ethics and lecturer in the University of Latvia, has developed and continues to advocate her own approach, according to which public schools should offer a nonconfessional course in “Christian Ethics” for grades 1 through 12 with an alternative in secular “Ethics.”7 Also, the Ministry of Education and Science has developed curricula for courses in “History of Religions” for secondary schools (1998) and “Christian Ethics” for primary schools (1999).8 Today these courses are offered within the framework of the social sciences, thus bypassing ecclesiastical control.
In 1998, a group of officials of the Ministry of Education and Science submitted a petition to Parliament asking for the introduction of a nonconfessional course on Christianity in elementary and primary schools and a descriptive course on world religions in high schools. Confessional religious education could remain as an optional, non-credit subject. As an alternative to religion, schools could offer ethics. The goal was a more open, descriptive, and ecumenical curriculum, which would introduce the basics of Christianity, rather than present the doctrine of a particular confession.9 This petition rekindled debates and caused an open controversy between church leaders and the Ministry of Education and Science. Yet Parliament once again chose to support ecclesial leadership by refusing to change the law and by granting state financial support for the confessional approach.
At that point both Lutheran Archbishop Vanags and Roman Catholic Cardinal Pujats appeared unconcerned about the low level of popularity of confessional religion classes in public schools. According to statistics, in 1998 they were only taught in approximately 20 percent of all schools, mostly in grades 1 through 4.10 Even though churches were concerned with maintaining the link with society through the schools, they were ready to do that only on their own terms, regardless of public opinion and the practical effectiveness of their chosen approach.
To support the confessional approach, an appeal was also made to the experience of those European countries where the religious education classes in state schools are still confessional: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Luxemburg, and parts of Germany and Switzerland.11 However, opponents pointed out that in other European countries such as Great Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the confessional approach has been abolished in favor of more open Christian ecumenical or even inter-religious curricula, so while it can be argued that some kind of religious education is an established tradition in Europe, it is not automatically the confessional approach.
The Nonconfessional Approach
As a result of an unexpectedly sharp discussion in the mass media and considerable public opposition to a purely confessional approach to religious education in public schools, leaders of the five traditional churches, including Cardinal Pujats, softened their position and agreed to replace the five confessional curricula with one common nonconfessional Christian curriculum. This event marked the formal end of the debate and the beginning of a pluralistic period in religious education in public schools in Latvia. The resulting joint program, “Christian Faith,” for grades 1 through 4, focused on the basics of Christian faith from a nonconfessional, biblical perspective.12 However, teachers still had to be approved by their churches. It was also emphasized that these changes in the curriculum of religious education in public schools had been initiated, authorized, and controlled by the bishops of traditional churches, and not the Ministry of Education and Science. Since direct ecclesiastical control was preserved, in a broad political sense, teaching religion in public schools is still regarded as implicitly confessional.
Finally, in 2004, the Ministry of Education and Science, in consultation with churches, introduced in grades 1 through 4 an obligatory choice between two courses, “Ethics” and “Christian Faith,” and initiated the process of developing new curricula for both subjects. This was intended as a compromise between those who insisted on compulsory Christian education in state schools and those who opposed it. This decision has not fundamentally altered the basic framework of pluralism of approaches because the optional courses, “History of Religion” and “Christian Ethics,” remain in place.
Today, all schools must offer a choice between a nonconfessional course, “Christian Faith,” and a course in “Ethics” in grades 1 through 4. Ideally, they also can offer a nonconfessional course, “Christian Ethics,” as an alternative to secular “Ethics” in grade 7 and an elective course, “History of Religions,” in high school. However, students are not required to study religion in any grade, provided they study ethics in elementary school and grade 7.
Teachers can acquire certification to teach religion and ethics at the Professional Program of Teachers of Religion and Ethics at the Faculty of Theology, University of Latvia. However, teachers of the course “Christian Faith” still have to be approved by their churches.
Despite the achieved compromise along ecumenical lines, confessionalism is still strong in Latvia, with mainline churches seeking to consolidate their identities after 50 years of forced atheism. Even though the debate is officially closed, religious educators in Latvia still have to be prepared to deal with the confessionalist mentality in their daily work, especially in religiously homogenous regions such as Latgale (the eastern part of Latvia, which is predominantly Roman Catholic).
Even though there has been certain progress in the field of religious education due to increased governmental support, in reality, the existence and form of religious education in a public school are still highly dependent on the attitude of its administration. It is still possible for principals to influence the decision of parents of elementary school students in favor of ethics, as well as to choose to offer the electives, “Christian Ethics” and “History of Religions.” This situation allows for a wide range of experience with religious education in different schools: in some of them religious education flourishes, in some it barely exists, and in others it is completely ignored.
Edited and updated excerpt reprinted with permission from Anta Filipsone, “A Critical Analysis of Approaches to Religious Education in Public Schools of Post-Soviet Latvia,” Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 2002.
Anta Filipsone is a Lecturer in Practical Theology, Faculty of Theology, University of Latvia, Riga, Latvia.,
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© 2005 East-West Church and Ministry Report