By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey
Impunity Watch Staff Writer
ATHENS, Greece — On October 31, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that mandatory religious education in Greek schools was a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (Right to Education) of the Convention, interpreted in light of Article 9 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion).
The applicants in this case were two sets of parents and their daughters, who live on small Greek islands. Under the Greek Constitution, religious education is compulsory for all students at primary and secondary level.
In July 2017, the applicants had requested the Supreme Administrative Court to invalidate the religious education curriculum for the 2017-18 school year, when their daughters were entering the third and fourth grades respectively. With the new school year fast approaching, the two families requested to have their case considered urgently but the court dismissed their requests.
In January 2018, arguing that the procedure for exemption from religious classes conflicted with the European Convention, the applicants lodged a complaint with the ECHR. They claimed that if they were to have their daughters exempted from religious education, they would have to state that they were not Orthodox Christians. In filing their complaint, the applicants relied on Article 9 and Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the Convention.
The Court found that submitting a formal declaration saying that their children were not Orthodox Christians would place an undue burden on parents. The Court reasoned that the existing system in Greece for exempting children from religious education classes could potentially reveal sensitive aspects of an applicants’ private lives. In addition, the likelihood of conflict wound probably dissuade them from seeking exemption, particularly if they lived in a small and religiously condensed society, where the risk of stigmatization was much higher than in larger cities. Lastly, no other classes were offered to exempted students, which would lead to lost hours of schooling just for their professed beliefs.
Therefore, the Court held that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, as interpreted alongside Article 9 of the Convention. The Court emphasized that the authorities did not have the right to interfere in the scope of individual conscience, to establish individuals’ religious belief or to compel them to divulge their beliefs.
Greece lags behind almost all of the member states, where such an exemption procedure, or the option of attending a class in an alternate subject are already offered. This decision by ECHR is a monumental victory for religious minorities in Greece as it acknowledges their religious beliefs, allows them to be heard and strengthens their ability to pursue a modified curriculum in schools.
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