Mosaic Europe

Separated but still together: Church and State in Germany

, by Annika Pietrus

Separated but still together: Church and State in Germany

In 2009, a head physician at a Catholic hospital was dismissed by his employer, the Catholic Church. He was accused of being disloyal to church ethics due to his divorce and remarriage. In 2018, a prospective teacher at a Catholic secondary school was dismissed by the Church because he made public that he aimed to marry his life partner. His choice did not fit church ethics and the argument of disloyalty to the church was made again. Both cases aroused protests from all over the country and from staff and students at the hospital and school. The following question quickly formed: How are these dismissals possible in a country where state and church are separate? At the heart of this question lies a discussion which is worth having, particularly in times when religion is once more used to divide rather than unite.

The issue of equal treatment

In Germany, State and Church are officially separated, comprising that religious freedom is granted under the constitution and that the neither the Catholic nor the Protestant, or any other religion can dictate politics. But the church is still a political power player, not least due to its standing as second biggest employer in the country. Hospitals, kindergartens, schools, homes for the elderlies and charities fall among the church’s realm of employment. But, unlike other employers, such as the state or companies in the free market, the church isn’t necessarily required to comply with the “Gleichbehandlungsgesetz” (law of equal treatment). The Church has a right to autonomy or, in other words, the right to play by its own rules. To come to the Church’s defence, the argument can be made that the church is not like any other company. It is driven by religious beliefs that have formed over centuries. Hence, if the church wants to stick to its beliefs and ethics within in its own institutions, so be it.

There is an initial flaw with this argument: the church does not fully cover the costs of its own institutions. Hospitals run by the church are not financed by the church. Catholic hospitals are economic enterprises that finance themselves through the contribution of insurance companies Homes for the elderlies and charities are equally treated as enterprises and finance themselves, with additional contributions from the church. School teachers and general staff are oftenfinanced by the state. These examples must not diminish the church’s contribution to social and welfare purposes. They rather call question the separation between church and state into question. If a state remunerates schools’ staff, can an institution still dictate its ethics?

The mammon money

To expand on the question of finances, a look into a widely discussed mammon is necessary: money. In 2018, the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany made a record revenue of 12.4 billion eurosbetween the two of them. The biggest share of this revenue comes from the church tax, paid of directly from the officially declared Christians’ bank account, which official tax offices are responsible to collect. In return, the German state receives around 3 percent of the church tax income. The Church uses this tax’s revenue to finance counselling services, kindergartens and charities, which serve the general good. It is also used to cover staff costs and the renovation of church owned buildings. Once again, the argument can be made that there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Nothing, except that it goes against a clear separation of state and church.

The problem presents itself in the lack of transparency relating to how this money is actually used, for church members who pay the church tax. While people who donate to charities fighting poverty or global warming, choose actively the purpose of their financial participation, people who pay the church tax do not have the same choice where their money goes. No one can be sure that the tax’s money is used for the greater good or for the renovation of churches and bishop’s homes. The Catholic and Protestant church are granted a privilege that no other charity or religious organisations has.

Is this situation fair in a society that is angered by the choice to dismiss a physician due his decision to divorce and remarry? In 2019, the Federal Labour Court in Erfurt ruled impermissible the dismissal of the physician due to his divorce and remarriage. For many, this marked a step towards stricter regulations of the church’s employment law. The church lost a part of its autonomy and still struggles with this notion.

In the case of Germany, a clear separation between the state and the church should involve an intricate balance between the autonomy given to an institution of worship and the constitution which grants equal rights to all of its citizens, no matter who they are and no matter what they believe. Belief, after all, isn’t bound to old church’s halls with high ceilings and big, coloured windows. It is made of people whose faith fills big halls and tiny rooms, grand buildings and run-down houses with life. If the church was separated from the state, this faith would still be there. It is an interwoven part of a society that is colourful and different and still fits together like mosaic.

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