Brussels, Belgium, Jul 13, 2016 / 02:52 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Religion classes in Belgium’s French-speaking primary and secondary schools will be cut in half starting in October 2016 and replaced with a weekly hour of citizenship classes. Critics worry that the new classes will promote abortion and homosexuality, and that the change could end up pushing teachers with a religious education or background out of the schools.

The decision was announced by the Belgian government in a July 7 decree, despite the fact that 97 percent of students had said they wanted the religion classes to be maintained. Last month, amid debate over the measure, the Belgian Bishops Conference released a statement emphasizing the importance of religious study in schools. “Indeed, removing the Catholic religion classes would mean relegating religious belief to the private sphere, which, for a democratic state, would be an impoverishment,” they said.

The Belgian state curriculum includes religion classes, with students having the choice of Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant or “a-confessional morality.”   The classes normally consist of two weekly hours of teaching. Last year, the government started a procedure to cut in half the weekly hours of religion in the curriculum.

The new citizenship classes — entitled “Education of philosophy and citizenship” (EPC) — will go into effect in October 2016 in primary schools and October 2017 in secondary schools. The government decision will apply only to the French-speaking schools in Belgium. Each of the country’s three main language communities — French, Flemish and German — have authority over their respective educational programs.

Announcement of the new policy has prompted concern from some in the academic system. One religion teacher, who requested anonymity, told CNA that “these citizenship classes are part of a real ideological indoctrination.” Instead of simply being neutral, the teacher charged, “these classes are filled with ideological topics: gender theory, homosexuality, euthanasia and abortion are not presented in a neutral way.”

Segments of the Belgian press have also criticized the content of the new classes, labeling them cours de rien, or “classes of nothing.” The change is controversial for other reasons as well, particularly because it could result in religion teachers being forced out of the educational system altogether.

The new citizenship classes must be taught by “neutral teachers” — those without any religious education in their background, including a degree from a Catholic university. Since many of the religion teachers have graduated from Catholic colleges or other religious institutions, they are considered “non-neutral,” and are therefore ineligible to teach the citizenship class. And since teachers are required to maintain a certain number of hours to keep their jobs, those with religious backgrounds could find their jobs at risk once their religion classes are reduced to half their current hours to accommodate the new citizenship courses.

The government maintains that no teachers are at risk of losing their jobs. However, critics charge that part-time teachers — often members of a religious minority — will be slowly eradicated from the schools, since they will be unable to maintain the necessary number of hours to continue teaching.

The Collectif des Enseignants de Religion dans l’Enseignement Officiel — better known by the French acronym of Cereo — is a group of religion teachers in Belgium’s state schools. The group has argued against the removal of religion from the state curriculum. Citing the hatred and fanaticism of the modern world, the group argued that it is more important than ever to “cultivate in each student an intelligent relationship to religion.”

In a June 30 letter, the members of Cereo defending the teaching of religion, saying, “We are confident that our courses help combat indifference, fanaticism, dogmatism, intolerance, and violence in times of crisis.” “The courses of morality and religion are places of education that respect all particular beliefs, and promote integration in a pluralistic society,” the teachers said. “They are a place of freedom, exchange and debate, respecting the full person of the student.”

Cereo is appealing to the Belgian Constitutional Court, with the claim that the religion and morality classes already cover the topic of citizenship. “We believe that a critical but benevolent religious instruction, taught by masters and teachers combining a journey of faith and a serious training, is in the current circumstances the safest way to develop civic virtue and moderation of our students search for meaning and identity,” they said.