The Public Chamber adopted a compromise resolution on the issue of teaching religion at school

Настоящий материал (информация) произведен и (или) распространен иностранным агентом РОО Центр «Сова» либо касается деятельности иностранного агента РОО Центр «Сова».

A long-standing conflict around Basic Orthodox Culture (BOC) courses in secondary schools is a focal issue in relationships between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government. Over the two recent years, this issue has come all the way from multi-party, confused and confusing debates to a more straightforward collision between the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, on the one hand, and the top clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church, on the other. The Ministry argues for teaching the history of religions to all students rather than focusing on any particular religion, while the Russian Orthodox Church insists that BOC should be introduced in general schools. While the debates unfold, BOC is being gradually introduced by certain schools and entire regions.

The broader argument is not likely to be resolved soon, but an important turning point occurred recently: the Ministry effectively delegated the entire BOC issue to be mediated by the Public Chamber, a consultative body of public figures selected by the government, including representatives of major religious institutions.

On 27 November, a joint meeting of three Public Chamber commissions was held in Moscow. Members of the Commission on Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience (chaired by Director of Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology Valery Tishkov), the Commission on Intellectual Potential of the Nation (chaired by Director of the Higher School of Economics Yaroslav Kuzminov), and the Commission on Cultural and Spiritual Heritage (chaired by Metropolitan of Kaluga and Borovsk Kliment) met to help resolve the argument.

Deputy Minister of Education Dmitry Livanov presented the Ministry's official position. He quoted survey findings which indicate that 58 out of 79 regional educational authorities insist on strictly optional and voluntary religious education in schools, subject to parental consent, and delivered in a secular manner by ordinary teachers, rather than clergy. According to Deputy Minister Livanov, there are two options for introducing this subject in schools: either as an optional course delivered outside regular classes for students aged 14 and above or as an optional course included in the regular curriculum at the discretion of each school, provided that students have a choice. (Incidentally, the Ministry of Education has recently drafted a legislative proposal whereby regions and schools will no longer have the power to decide on certain parts of the curriculum - so-called regional and institutional components - which rules out any local discretion. But it will take a while before this law is adopted - if ever).

Oleg Zykov of the Public Chamber pointed out the dangers of Orthodox Christian catechetesis being introduced in the disguise of BOC - which, of course, is the real purpose of the Church - and referred to a number of recognized exerts who warn against it. Representatives of religious organizations other than the Russian Orthodox Church have traditionally argued for religious education in schools offered as a choice of several different religions. One of Russia's two chief Rabbis, Berl Lazar, advocates for a basic school course in :traditional religions; - understood as Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism - whereas the chief of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals), Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky insists on a broader list of :Russia's main religions; (even though a couple of months ago, in September, he argued that religious education in schools must be optional, because mandatory division of students based on their faith will cause a split in society).

Metropolitan of Kaluga and Borovsk Kliment argued on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church by saying that teaching a number of several different religions at once is unreasonable and likely to confuse students. Metropolitan Kliment was convinced that religious education should be started in primary school, and different religious should be taught separately, rather than one course for all. The Metropolitan proposed creating a mandatory framework course in Spiritual Culture and Ethics to include courses in specific religions - drafted by representatives of different faiths - and secular ethics and philosophy for non-believers. In accordance with the Church's position, Metropolitan Kliment insisted that the course should be culture-focused and avoid catechetesis (even though formerly he had voiced support for introducing religious instruction - God's Law - in secular schools, as a catechetesis-oriented subject modeled after pre-Communist schools).

Ultimately, the meeting of three Public Chamber commissions arrived at a compromise solution benefiting supporters, rather than opponents of BOC.

The meeting participants agreed that education should be based on acceptance of Russia's ideological and cultural plurality and voluntary choice of cultural or religious traditions.

Voluntary choice means, in particular, that :wherever faith-oriented training courses are added to the regional component of [general school] curriculum, schools should be obligated, at the parents' request, to replace such courses by other optional courses or by regular classes,; such as philosophy, ethics, etc.

The meeting advised the Ministry of Education and Science to summarize available practices and requests voiced by various groups of people, to develop a uniform training methodology for faith-based courses and their secular ideology-oriented alternatives at the regional and institutional level, and to prepare draft legislation regulating the delivery of such courses (indeed, the Ministry is likely to draft such legislation).

Specific recommendations refer to ideological plurality and effectively accept that faith-based ideologies have equal value with the scientific outlook normally taught at school: "secularity of the Russian state means that diverse ideological approaches should be addressed by the system of education, and the perception of religion by part of the Russian public as a foundation of traditional culture of the family, nation, moral development, and formation of the child's personality should be respected.;

Moreover, "the federal standards of general education should make sure that the minimum required curriculum includes elements covering the main religious ideological concepts. These basic ideological concepts (the origins of life and man, the meaning of life and history, the essence of man, etc.) must be taught as part of required general school courses - such as history, social science, biology, etc. - from various perspectives, without one-sided ideologization of the learning material.;

So the Chamber effectively refused to support the Ministry's position and endorsed the introduction of religious education courses in regions. The final recommendation is particularly interesting, as it means that "main religious ideological concepts; will be taught in general school not only as stand-alone subjects, but also as an integral part of the required curriculum in humanities and science.

On 29 November, the Board of the Chamber approved the recommendations addressed to the Ministry of Education, but with substantial amendments. Firstly, the proposed involvement of religious organizations in the design of school courses was made less obvious; secondly, a clear distinction was drawn in the final recommendation between scientific knowledge and ideological interpretation by adding that there can be only one scientific truth. "There is no such thing as a diversity of ideological approaches in science, there is [scientific] truth," said Secretary of the Chamber Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, apparently unwilling to agree with the idea that biology and other natural sciences should be taught "from various perspectives."