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Spain's new citizenship course has some seeing red
By Robert Duncan
The Spanish government says its new Education Law will promote plurality in a modern, democratic state. The law's critics claim it is a tool for the Socialist government to indoctrinate students.
Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela of Madrid has said the course "clashes with the fundamental principles of the Constitution and with the right of parents to choose their children's moral instruction."
At the heart of the controversy is an obligatory Citizenship class (Educacíon para la Ciudadanía) taught over four years, beginning with 11-year old students. The course is being introduced this September in seven provinces, with a full rollout in the nation's 17 provinces next year. The Church says the course teaches a vision of man that is not Christian. Among other things, the Citizenship class recommends girls lose their virginity before marriage, say critics. According to Libertad Digital, a popular conservative Spanish electronic news site, the Socialist's argue that such behavior is needed to ensure girls "won't be servants to unlimited prejudices and macho customs."
Last week Madrid's Council of the Laity issued a statement that stressed "responsible people and lovers of freedom, and of course Catholics, cannot accept" the Citizenship class, adding elsewhere that the course is "incompatible with the right of parents to morally educate their children" and it forms "the consciences of students, establish a relativistic ethic and defend terms and concepts of gender ideology."
"We think Catholic parents, should be the first to react in response to this attack on freedom and we would consider it a lack of solidarity with the rest of Spanish families if we did not do so just because the course may not be offered in one's specific community or because Catholics schools have promised to adapt the course's contents to their principles," the Laity statement noted.
Fernando Larrain Bustamante of the pro-family organization SOS Familia agreed that educational material used in the course infringes upon the rights of parents to educate their children in questions relating to religion and morality. The course "supports abortion, premarital sex and the classic theory of class warfare. The material isn't neutral," said Larrain.
Other critics point out that the course teaches that there are 30 types of family units, and that the definitions of male and female are antiquated and should be replaced by the terms of gender - identified as being of seven varieties that can be freely chosen by individuals.
The course teaches that "if you don't like one gender then you can just change for another one, just like you change clothes," said Antonio Del Moral, a state prosecutor and critic of the course.
The Spanish Forum for the Family (Foro Español de la Familia) wants Spain's courts to intervene and is encouraging parents to be conscientious objectors in clear defiance of the Socialist government's stance that such status cannot be claimed.
Benigno Blanco, president of the Foro Español de la Familia said that while they don't have all the numbers at the end of August over 15,000 people had claimed conscientious objector status.
The Foro Español de la Familia is the same group that organized millions to protest the Socialist government's same-sex marriage legislation in 2005. While the government went ahead with that legislation, Blanco is optimistic in this case as he foresees a favorable court ruling. "All conscientious objection cases eventually end up in court," with a favorable ruling, "as it is a right guaranteed by the nation's constitution," Blanco said.
There is another way the case could end up before the courts - testing regional versus national powers. Some regional governments ruled by the Partido Popular - such as Madrid - have said they will ignore the Socialist government and allow parents to claim conscientious objector status. In the case of Madrid, the regional government said it would accept voluntary social work as an alternative to the Citizenship course in 2008.
For its part, SOS Familia has launched a letter-writing campaign that seeks to convince the government to hold off the full application of the Education Law until 2008 - after the upcoming general elections.
As Larrain explained, "We don't think that it makes much sense to implement a new education law just months before the general elections when the opposition party has said that if they come to power they will abolish the law." Since the launch of its campaign one month ago Larrain says on average around 2,000 letters each day are being sent to the Prime Minister's office.
In another case, Carlos Seco Gordillo, a conscientious objector and attorney in the southern province of Andalusia, presented mid-August a petition to the regional court opposing the government's plan in "defense of the moral liberty of our children." Seco's petition has since been mirrored by other concerned parents throughout Spain.
According to Antonio Santos, president of the Family Studies Institute (IDEFA), the Citizenship course is "an unnecessary invasion on the part of the government that encroaches on the rights and primary duties of parents in the education of their children. By imposing one, unique school of thought in the classroom, and the difficulties with which parents can express their constitutional right to be conscientious objectors, these are yet further examples of this government's lack of democratic criteria."
None of the pro-family organizations have received a response from the Socialist government. However, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has repeatedly insisted his administration's "firm intention" to implement the Education Law ahead of elections. "No faith is above the law. Faith cannot be imposed," Zapatero argued. "Spain is a nonconfessional state, and its principles of laicism guarantee pluralism."
In response, Bishop Ricardo Blazquez Perez of Bilbao, and president of the Spanish bishops' conference, said "Faith is not imposed, but rather it is proposed .The State is nonconfessional so that believers and non-believers, of one faith and others, can develop the religious liberty for which we have a right."
Archbishop Antonio Cañizares of Toledo, vice-president of the Spanish Bishops Conference, noted that "laicism also cannot be above the law," but this isn't the case in Spain "where laicism is being consecrated as the official religion."
In that vein, the Spanish Catholic Church issued a statement that said the Citizenship course "implies a serious wound to the original and inalienable right of parents and schools, in collaboration with them, to choose the moral formation that they want for their children. This is a right recognized by the Spanish Constitution (article 27.3). The government cannot supplant the society as an educator of the moral conscience."
Elsewhere the Spanish Catholic Church statement noted that if schools lose their ideological neutrality it "will impose on whoever has chosen the Catholic religion and morality another moral formation that hasn't been chosen by them."
In response to the Church's reaction, Gregorio Peces-Barba Martínez, a Socialist heavyweight and one of the authors of Spain's constitution, in August wrote a scathing editorial in the nation's most widely-read newspaper, the left-leaning El Pais. Peces-Barba warned that if the Church doesn't stop attacking the education course, "it will be necessary to address the topic of the actions and situation of the Church and establish a new status, that puts them in their place and that respects the autonomy of the civil authority."
The government insists those who oppose the mandatory class are involved in a smear campaign.
Mercedes Cabrera, Minister of Education and Science, has said that the course forms part of a "philosophy" to educate students in the values of a varied, democratic system that is based on tolerance and dialogue. Cabrera said that those who oppose the course are "those who sadly don't know, or are distorting," the contents of the course. "They are creating problems where there are none," according to Cabrera.
Those words, however, don't faze Blanco. "I'm not a prophet, but I believe we will win this case," he said.
Robert Duncan is a journalist and ombudsman for foreign press in Spain. He is an Executive Board Member and Vice-President for the Organización de Periodismo y Comunicación Ibero-Americana, and Vice-President of the energy and telecommunications association, APSCE. He is News Editor for Spero News, and Editor-In-Chief of EnerPub.