Mandatory religious instruction again: Papageorgiou

Religious education is mandatory for all schoolchildren at primary and secondary level in Greece. In Papageorgiou and Others v Greece [2019] ECHR 790, the issue arose once again of the right of parents to withdraw their children from religious education classes.

Background

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 [14]. 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 [15].

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 [47].

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 [85].

 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 [86].

The judgment

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 [87]. The freedom to manifest ones beliefs also contained a negative aspect:  

“the individuals 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” [89].

There had been a violation of A2P1 read with Article 9.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Mandatory religious instruction again: Papageorgiou" in Law & Religion UK, 31 October 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/10/31/mandatory-religious-instruction-again-papageorgiou/

2 thoughts on “Mandatory religious instruction again: Papageorgiou

  1. Dear Frank, some information provided here is a bit misleading, probably because of the lengthy and a bit unnecessary ‘circumstances of the case’ section of the case.

    Firstly, there is no information about the religious affiliation of the applicants in the case. Secondly, the applicants challenged that the new program ‘did not provide for an objective, critical and pluralist religious education course’ (para 8).

    Secondly, the information you provided which is ‘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 [14]’ is from a different case, brought before Greek court by different applicants who were Orthodox Christians.

    Please read para 14:

    14. (…) The application was subsequently adjourned anew and scheduled to be heard on 21 September 2018 before the Plenary due to its importance, so that it could be heard jointly with another two applications for annulment lodged by other individuals against the same ministerial decisions as those challenged by the applicants. The other applications, brought by parents of students, a theology teacher, a diocese, a metropolitan bishop and an association, requested the annulment of the same ministerial decisions and syllabuses, but on grounds that were diametrically opposed to those relied on by the applicants. In these applications, the applicants, identifying their religious affiliation as Orthodox Christian, complained, inter alia, that the disputed new religious education programme for the school year 2017/18 sought to “transform the course from an Orthodox confessional one into a ‘religiology’ course (θρησκειολογικό)”, in breach of Articles 4 and 13 of the Constitution and the applicable relevant legislation.’

    So these are not the same applicants.

    Best,

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