BERLIN -- When the gregariously noisy Volk of Bavaria gather to shout and sing at this time of year, it usually has something to do with one of their two great passions: the foaming beer of Oktoberfest or the Bayern Muenchen soccer team.
This fall the fiercest roars have been saved for the sake of religion, with Bavarians vowing loudly and angrily to keep the cross in the classroom.
The shouting started last month when Germany's highest court, citing the constitutional separation of church and state, overturned a Bavarian state law requiring that a crucifix be displayed in every school classroom.
Since then, everyone from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to Pope John Paul II has spoken out against the ruling, and Bavarian anger has reached the point where rallies 'round the cross now outnumber revels 'round the beer tent. That was the case Saturday, when 25,000 people, many carrying crucifixes, elbowed their way through Oktoberfest celebrants and soccer fans to gather for a protest in the city center.
Officials oppose ruling
Joining them were the state's most powerful politicians and religious leaders, who pledged to either bypass the court with legislation or, if it comes to that, defy the law of the land.
Yesterday, the Bavarian Cabinet kept the first of those promises, drawing up a new bill to keep the cross in all classrooms.
If this seems like familiar territory to Americans accustomed to debates over school prayer, it's relatively new ground here.
"The issue of church-state separation has never been discussed sufficiently in Germany," said Elke Huemmeler, manager of the State Committee of Catholics in Bavaria, and organizer of the Saturday rally. "Its explosive nature had yet to be realized."
For decades the government has coexisted with the country's major religions in an odd system in which the government, in effect, serves as the weekly collection plate -- levying a tax on church members, then passing along the proceeds.
Bavarian Catholics haven't tangled seriously with the government since the 1930s, when Hitler's Nazis also tried to get crucifixes out of the schools. Opponents of the current ruling wasted no time in making the Nazi comparison, and Chancellor Kohl couldn't resist a veiled reference of his own.
"The crucifix as a symbol of Christian belief harms no one," he said, especially in light of "this century's bitter experience with anti-Christian ideologies and their awful and inhuman effects."
But even Hitler couldn't stand up to the wrath of Bavarians. He dropped the idea of taking away their crosses, and Bavarians rewarded him with some of the fiercest loyalty to the Nazi Third Reich, as well as its best generals.
No easy reversal
The current ruling won't be so easily reversed. The high court's 5-3 majority so far hasn't backed down, although the justices have stressed that the decision doesn't necessarily mean all the crosses have to come down . . . unless students or parents request it.
In legal terms their decision appears unassailable. The constitution seems to make it clear that a government can't mandate that students work in the presence of a religious symbol.
Culturally, the matter is more complex.
Bavaria is the largest island of Catholicism in Germany's sea of Protestants. That distinction has long been a key part of the state's identity as practically a nation unto itself. A tradition-bound land of lederhosen and dirndl skirts, Bavaria's relationship with the rest of Germany resembles the one between Texas and the rest of the United States.
Bavarians tend to loudly assert their superiority, while other Germans tend to respond by rolling their eyes and turning up their noses, with the two sides agreeing only that it's time for another round of beer. Bavaria even has its own separate political party -- the Christian Social Union -- although nationally it works in tandem with Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats.
The Saturday protest rally at times echoed with as much regionalism as religion. State premier Edmund Stoiber, who has refused so far to enforce the ruling, has said several times that the court's action "is an attack on Bavarian culture and traditions."
Even the clerics in their holy services, speaking solemnly from their pulpits, have tended to include a reference to "the importance of the crucifix in Bavarian culture" when speaking on the matter.
Rest of Germany divided
The rest of Germany seems divided on the issue, with polls showing a fairly even split. Left-leaning parties such as the Greens have applauded, and Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper couldn't resist an editorial swipe at the "Bavarian Mullahs," comparing the state's church-state alliance to the Muslim leadership of Iran.
But no one has been treated more roughly in the debate than Ernst Seler, who started the whole thing 10 years ago by asking that the crucifix be removed from the classroom of his 6-year-old daughter. The 2-foot-long wooden image of a suffering, bleeding man nailed to a cross scared her, he argued. Besides, he said, no other religion had its symbols on display.
For six years he and school authorities wrangled over the matter. Four years ago he took the case to court, leading to last month's ruling.
"We have received murder threats against our whole family, by phone and by mail," Mr. Seler said. Call the Seler home nowadays and you'll first get a tape recording warning that police are monitoring the line.
But at least Mr. Seler is at home to take the calls. Plainclothes bTC police raided his home in an attempt to institutionalize him in 1989. He turned himself in to police a few days later, only to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward for 12 days.
Now, he, too, sees shades of Nazism at work, but it's not the court he blames.
"The question in this matter," he said, "is who has the right to mold a child's character, the state or the parents?"
Injunction forces schools
His persistence has managed to put the first dents into the state's defiance of the court. Last Friday he won a state court injunction to force the three schools attended by his children to take down their crucifixes.
State education minister Hans Zehetmair complied, but not without some grumbling among the populace, whose attitude toward such requests is best summed up by Ms. Huemmeler, the Catholic leader.
"The limit of tolerance," she said, "is when minorities demand that the majority submit to their will."
The Bavarian Cabinet took an almost identical position yesterday with its proposed bill. It would require a crucifix in every classroom once again, allowing for removal only as a result of an "amicable agreement" with dissenting parents or children. When this is not possible, the school's principal will decide after "taking appropriate consideration of the will of the majority."