BERLIN — Ritual circumcision for Muslim and Jewish boys remains legal in Germany. Germany’s legislative body, the Bundestag, decided as much last year in what was a win for the country’s religious minorities. But Muslim girls must participate in co-ed swim classes, according to a recent decision by Germany’s highest court on such matters — although they are free to wear the Burkini, a swimming suit that leaves only hands, feet and face uncovered. These recent developments seem like a contradiction — religious freedom sometimes, but not others.

But they’re not contradictory. To understand why, it’s important to realize the way religious freedom is conceptualized — and coded into law — in Germany. It has been necessary to organize some measure of religious tolerance here since the reformation. Protestants had to be able to tolerate Catholic processions and feasts without going ballistic — and vice versa. 

Religious freedom has expanded to become both a guarantee and an obligation, especially in public, where differences can clash. Even when there was a painful learning process, people practiced restraint long before the democratic state was established. That doesn’t mean that the Catholic and Protestant churches didn’t argue, just that the cultural differences were generally tolerated. 

Believe whatever you want

Religious freedom has become harder to ensure as increased immigration has brought more adherents of very different religions to Germany, particularly Muslims. There is a difference between circumcision and swimming class: The law protects the practice of religious rituals and traditions, as long as they are acceptable to the overall society. In this sense, circumcision, baptism and first communions are all considered protected. 

You can believe whatever you want, which is why employees and schoolchildren are allowed to take time off for religious holidays. 

But swimming class is not in the same category. There is no problem with wearing a headscarf in math or German class — because the headscarf doesn’t interfere with the mission of teaching. But during swimming class or gym class, there are certain types of attire that can get in the way. 

If a 13-year-old girl and her parents think swimming is too obscene — as in the case recently decided by the court — then the official response is that the feeling of shame is not a “religious practice.” It is not a ritual or a religious service, just simply a clash between a religious person and the secular world around him or her. 

In today’s secular world, there are billboards for swimming attire and classmates who are obsessed with Germany’s Next Topmodel. These are simply unavoidable. And plenty of non-religious students going through puberty feel uncomfortable during swimming lessons too, and not just because of the presence of the other sex. Being uncomfortable with nakedness is something that all students, not exclusively religious ones, have to deal with as part of their personal development, particularly in co-ed swimming and sport classes. 

Allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear Burkinis during swimming class is an acceptable way to mitigate religious concerns, the court believes. Similarly, the court held that a boy who is a Jehovah’s Witness could not be excused from watching a popular film in school because the film depicted magic — something the boy’s religion doesn’t accept. If students were allowed to be excused from watching or reading material that might offend their religious beliefs, they could just as easily excuse themselves from Faust or Hamlet — or even any of the Grimm fairy tales.

In the end, almost all religions demand total control over their believers’ daily lives. But as philosopher Jürgen Habermas said, “Religious believers have to abandon that total control as soon as they become part of a pluralistic society that differentiates between the religious community and the larger political community.” The requirement that children go to school is just one of the many examples of this, and it is something that all families must accept. 

“A classroom in which all possible religious beliefs are taken into account is not practical,” the court wrote in its verdict. That sounds enlightened, but it remains to be seen if it will have the desired effect of making peace.