MADRID, Dec. 20 — José Luis Yagüe 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 Mr. Yagüe, a self-described atheist. “I fail to understand the support still given to religion by this supposedly secular state.”
While President Jacques Chirac of France has called for a ban on religious symbols in public schools, the conservative administration of the Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, 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 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 López 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 Mr. López 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.”
Although Spain has been traditionally a Roman Catholic country, church attendance has plummeted since the end of the dictatorship in 1975. Only 19 percent of Spaniards consider themselves practicing Catholics and attend church regularly, according to a 2002 survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Research.
The Spanish Constitution, passed in 1978 and considered one of Europe’s most progressive, guarantees freedom of religion and states that no religion enjoys official status. During the transition to democracy, however, the government signed an agreement with the Vatican to support Catholic education. The government also signed agreements with many religious schools, which now offer a free public school curriculum with state money.
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