Germany's top administrative court has ruled that a Muslim student is not entitled to perform prayers at his school because the act has the potential to create "very severe conflicts."
Germany's Federal Administrative Court found that although the right to pray at school is guaranteed by religious freedom under the constitution (Grundgesetz), students lose that right if a conflict is created in the process.
The court also ruled that schools are not obligated to accommodate Muslims by providing them with separate prayer rooms.
The ruling in the landmark case has both legal and political consequences. Not only do schools across Germany now have a legal basis for banning Muslim prayers, but the widely-watched case also feeds into the larger debate about the role of Islam in Germany.
The case dates back to 2007, when a 14-year-old Muslim student and some of his peers at a high school in Berlin began a prayer session in the school corridor during a break from class.
The following day the principal informed the boy and his parents that praying was not permitted on the grounds of the school, which has students from 30 different countries and nearly all major religions. The principal said she feared for the peaceful running of the school.
The student had argued that because prayer times depend on the rising and setting of the sun, he had no other choice during the winter but to pray around midday while at school. He then filed a lawsuit in an effort to force his school into allowing him to pray at school. It became the first such case in German courts.
In September 2009, the highest court in the region, Berlin-Brandenburg, ruled that the student did have the right to pray on school grounds during his break from class. His high school subsequently granted him a special room for midday prayer, one of the five required daily prayers in Islam.
But the state of Berlin appealed the ruling out of concern that daily prayer would disturb the high school's routine and jeopardize its religious neutrality.
Now the federal court in Leipzig has overturned the original confirmation of the student's religious rights.
Capping a four-year legal battle, the Leipzig-based court ruled: "The court has decided that performing the prayer rite in the school corridor could exacerbate a threat which already exists to the peace of the school community. By 'peace of the school community' we mean an environment which is free of conflict and which allows lessons to take place in an orderly manner."
The court also said the student "is not entitled to perform prayer during school outside of class when this can disrupt the running of the school." It added that the "school was not able to organize a separate room for prayer."
The judges noted that conflict had broken out among Muslim students themselves after accusations that the student's prayer ritual was not in accordance with a particular teaching of the Islamic Koran.
The court stressed that the ruling did not mean that no student could pray at school. The decision should be made on a case by case basis.
Tilman Nagel, an expert in Islam who appeared as a witness at an earlier court hearing, said there is a big difference between how Muslims and Christians pray. He argued that the Islamic ritual of praying undertaken with sometimes very large groups of other people is very different from the Christian private act of praying, and was thus disruptive in a public space.
Ralph Ghadban, a Berlin-based expert on Islam, said Muslim groups are attempting to leverage German laws that guarantee religious freedom in an effort to Islamicize German schools. He argued that according to German law, the state has a duty to remain neutral but that Muslims were compromising that law by making the state show special favors for Islam.
Aiman Mazyek, the head of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, said: "In the past, schools have been more pragmatic and laid-back about the issue, but now that has been pushed back. Now, we have reached the final legal stage and that is why it has now turned into a political debate."
The court case has indeed become part of the larger debate over the question of Muslim immigration and the establishment of a parallel Islamic society in Germany, which is home to an estimated 4.3 million Muslims.
In November 2011, the German Federal Ministry of the Family released a 160-page report, "Forced Marriages in Germany: Numbers and Analysis of Counseling Cases," which revealed that thousands of young women and girls in Germany are victims of forced marriages every year. Most of the victims come from Muslim families; many have been threatened with violence and even death.
In September 2011, a new book "Judges Without Law: Islamic Parallel Justice Endangers Our Constitutional State," revealed that Islamic Sharia courts are now operating in all of Germany's big cities. The book argues that this "parallel justice system" is undermining the rule of law in Germany because Muslim arbiters -- imams [religious rulers] -- are settling criminal cases out of court, without the involvement of German prosecutors or lawyers, before law enforcement can bring the cases to a German court.
That same month, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich revealed that Germany is home to some 1,000 Islamic radicals who are potential terrorists. He said many of these home-grown Islamists are socially alienated Muslim youths who are being inflamed by German-language Islamist propaganda that promotes hatred of the West. In some instances, the extremists are being encouraged to join sleeper cells and to one day "awaken" and commit terrorist attacks in Germany and elsewhere.
In December 2010, an opinion survey, "Perception and Acceptance of Religious Diversity," conducted by the sociology department of the University of Münster, in partnership with the prestigious TNS Emnid political polling firm, showed that fewer than 5% of Germans believe Islam is a peaceful religion and that more than 40% of Germans believe that the practice of Islam should be vigorously restricted. Significantly, more than 80% of Germans agree with the statement: "Muslims must adapt to our culture."
In September 2010, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank linked to the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), published a survey which found that many Germans believe their country is being "overrun" by Muslim immigrants. It also found that these views are not isolated at the extremes of German society, but are to a large degree "at the center of it."
In August 2010, a book titled "Germany Does Away With Itself" analyzed the social changes that are transforming Germany thanks to the presence of millions of non-integrated Muslims in the country.
In July 2010, the late German magistrate Kirsten Heisig, in her book, "The End of Patience," warned: "The law is slipping out of our hands. It's moving to the streets or into a parallel system where an imam or another representative of the Koran determines what must be done."
In May 2009, Germany's Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), the domestic intelligence agency, reported that there are an estimated 29 Islamist groups in Germany with 34,720 members or supporters who pose a major threat to homeland security. Many of them want to establish a "Koran-state" in Germany: they believe Islamic Sharia law is a divine ordinance that is to replace all other legal systems.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.