TALLINN - Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said last month that religious freedom does not mean one should be uneducated about religion. Since his speech at a religious conference, a nationwide debate has ensued, though in reality the question of a religious - or spiritual - education has been on the agenda since right after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The main question now is should religious education be optional or obligatory.
By law, schools where at least 15 students want spiritual courses in one age group should offer religious studies as an optional course. Religion currently is an optional class in more than 40 out of 600 schools, with a total 1 percent of Estonian students taking some sort of religious studies.
Such courses are offered under different titles. In some schools it is called "ethics," in others "confessional teaching of faith" or "religious education." According to Tauno Teder, executive secretary at the Estonian Council of Churches, religious education as a course is the most neutral way of teaching spiritual issues. It gives an overview of main world beliefs and develops tolerance toward other faiths.
Since Estonian history and culture is mainly related to Christianity, it also grabs the most attention. Courses such as faith-teaching are sometimes seen by parents as "brainwashing sessions" where students can be easily converted.
Earlier research carried out by newspapers among 800 people in 2003 showed that only 14 percent favored obligatory religious courses 's mainly women and less educated people with small incomes. Seventy-one percent of respondents favored religion as an optional course.
"Our standpoint is that religion is part of education," said Priit Simson, spokesman for the Ministry of Education.
"There is no policy of making religion an obligatory course. The general trend here is to have less obligatory courses and more optional courses in the curriculum," he said.
Some people argue that religion as part of history can be taught as courses of history, philosophy, literature or art, and students should not spend too much time on religion per se but put more emphases on mathematics and physics instead. Regardless, the Estonian Ministry of Education has decreased the amount of science courses in the curriculum to give students an opportunity to decide which courses they want to take.
Rein Taagepera, a professor and onetime founder of Res Publica, a right-wing party, said that when students are being told at school that God exists but hear the opposite at home, it could result in an ethics crisis. He supports teaching religion as part of history classes.
Astronomer Martin Vallik has raised the opinion that religion hinders intellectual development and the ability to think independently. It gives a one-sided picture of culture and history and the state should not support the ideology of the minority, he argues.
In its platform set in 2002, the Estonian Council of Churches foresaw that religion would become an obligatory course starting from 2007 at all stages, which means from the first grade.
"It is clear that we can not oblige students if a referendum shows that people are against it," said Teder. "Currently it is an optional course, and we assist schools with textbooks and with training teachers."
The research ordered by the council and carried out by Saar Poll shows that students support religious studies starting in the 10th grade, and not earlier as proposed by the council. The research was conducted among students that had religion in their curriculum in 2004-2005. Sixty-two percent of those high school students thought it would be wise to start teaching religion at the high school level and most found it should not be taught to students in grades 1- 6.
Religious studies were abolished by the leftists in 1920 and brought back in the curriculum after a referendum in 1923. The Ministry of Education will not establish obligatory studies before a nationwide referendum has taken place.