Religious education is mandatory for all schoolchildren at primary and secondary level in Greece. In Papageorgiou and Others v Greece  ECHR 790, the issue arose once again of the right of parents to withdraw their children from religious education classes.
In July 2017, the applicants had asked the Supreme Administrative Court to annul two recent ministerial decisions establishing the religious education programme for the 2017/18 school year. The applicants identified themselves as Orthodox Christians, and complained, inter alia, that the new religious education programme for 2017/18 sought to “transform the course from an Orthodox confessional one into a ‘religiology’ course” in breach of Articles 4 and 13 of the Constitution and the applicable relevant legislation . The Church of Greece had intervened before the Supreme Administrative Court. The Church stated that its representatives had visited the official State committee six times during the drafting of the new religious education course and that it wanted the course to be of a confessional nature .
The applicants had asked to have their case examined under an urgent procedure before the start of the new school year, arguing that the procedure for exemption from religious instruction was contrary to their Convention rights; however, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed their requests and did not adjudicate on their case: the initial hearing scheduled kept on being adjourned until September 2018 – by which time the school year had already finished .
The ECtHR examined the applicants’ complaint from the standpoint of Article 2 of Protocol No 1 – which gives parents the right to demand respect from the State for their religious and philosophical convictions in the teaching of religion – read in the light of Article 9 (thought, conscience and belief). The main issue was that if the applicants had wanted to have their children exempted from religious education classes, they would have had to submit a solemn written declaration to the school principal, countersigned by the class teacher, stating that their child was not an Orthodox Christian – which the principal would then have had to check against the documentation that they had supplied in support of their application .
The Court found that the conditions for an exemption or for opting out were likely to place an undue burden on parents by requiring them to disclose their religious or philosophical convictions. The current system for exempting children from religious education classes risked exposing sensitive aspects of the applicants’ private lives. Moreover, it could deter them from making such a request because it involved the school principal having to verify the information on the declaration and alerting the public prosecutor in the event of a discrepancy because it was a criminal offence to make a false declaration .
The Court considered that the current system of exemption of children from religious education could an undue burden on parents, with a risk of exposure of sensitive aspects of their private lives and that the potential for conflict was likely to deter them from seeking exemption, especially if they lived in a small and religiously compact society, as was the case with the islands of Sifnos and Milos, where the risk of stigmatisation was much higher than in big cities . The freedom to manifest one’s beliefs also contained a negative aspect:
“the individual’s right not to manifest his or her religion or religious beliefs and not to be obliged to act in such a way as to enable conclusions to be drawn as to whether he or she held – or did not hold – such beliefs. The State authorities did not have the right to intervene in the sphere of individual conscience and to ascertain individuals’ religious beliefs or oblige them to reveal their beliefs concerning spiritual matters” .
There had been a violation of A2P1 read with Article 9.