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Religious or Belief Minority (RBM) rights in public schools

KEY FINDINGS

1. Provided that certain requirements are met, the rights of RBMs can be promoted equally well in countries that adopt a system of teaching about religions and beliefs (R/B), as in Sweden and Estonia; of teaching of R/B, as in Poland; or of teaching R/B in the context of other subjects, as in France.

2. In countries with a system of teaching of R/B, it is essential that a high number of RBMs be ensured the right to teach about their R/B in public schools. RBM rights are at stake where this is not the case and the access to teaching is reserved to the majority religious organization only (as in Greece) or to a limited number of RBMs (as in Italy).

3. With the partial exception of France, there are no regulations prohibiting students from wearing religious or belief symbols (RBSs) at school, while the official display of the symbol of a specific religion by schools is mandatory only in Italy and, with some exceptions, Austria.

4. The countries where the gap between majority religious organizations and RBMs is largest are Greece, Spain, and Italy, that is, three southern European  countries with a Catholic or Orthodox tradition. Those where this gap is smaller are Sweden and Finland, that is, two northern European countries with a Protestant background.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1.  Public schools should combine the need to provide all students with information and knowledge about different R/B with the opportunity to allow students who wish to do so to learn more about a specific R/B.

2.  In Greece, a reform allowing for the teaching of other R/Bs besides Orthodox Christianity is needed.

3.  In countries where a system of teaching of R/B exists, measures should be taken that allow even the smallest RBMs to avail themselves of the right to teach their R/B.

4.  In countries that provide for the display of RBSs by schools, measures should be taken to allow for the display of RBM symbols as well, based on the wishes of students and other stakeholders.

5.  Students should be given the right to display their RBSs at school, subject only to the limitations on freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief.

RISKS OF DISCRIMINATION

In Greece (except Thrace) only the majority religion can be taught in public schools. Even taking into account the difference in the number of believers between the Greek Orthodox Church and all other RBMs, the absence of any possibility for the latter to teach their doctrine could constitute discrimination.

INTERACTIVE INFOGRAPHICS

1 promotion of rights
0 respect of international standards
-1 restrictions of rights
1 low equal treatment of RBMs
0 equal treatment of RBMs
0 no gap between religious majority and minorities
-1 high gap between religious majority and minorities
1 promotion of rights
0 respect of international standards
-1 restrictions of rights
1 low equal treatment of RBMs
0 equal treatment of RBMs
1 promotion of rights
0 respect of international standards
-1 restrictions of rights
0 no gap between religious majority and minorities
-1 high gap between religious majority and minorities

WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT

 

What are the systems of religious and belief (R/B) education in the public schools of the EU countries?

In the EU countries R/B education is provided in different ways. For a short indication of the different systems see the “Glossary” section in the page DATA.  

According to the international standards, states are free to adopt the system of R/B education in public schools they deem more suitable for their citizens (see the following paragraph for more details).

 

How is R/B education provided (Cluster  A and B)?

The right of parents or guardians to educate their children in accordance with their own religious convictions is recognized in Art. 18 of the ICCPR, according to which

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

This right is further specified in the First Additional Protocol to the ECHR which contains an explicit reference to religious instruction (Art. 2).

 In interpreting the provision of the ICCPR, the Human Rights Committee pointed out that 

(…) article 18.4 permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way (…),

 adding that 

(…) public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18.4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians (CCPR General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion), CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, 1993, no. 6).  

It follows from these provisions that public schools may include R/B education in their curricula in a manner freely determined by each state. In its decision in Osmano─člu and Kocaba┼č v. Switzerland, the ECtHR ruled that 

While the States must ensure that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, and must refrain from pursuing any aim of indoctrination, they are nonetheless free to devise their school curricula according to their needs and traditions (Application no. 29086/12, 10 January 2017, no. 95, pp. 24-25). 

The general rules on non-discrimination also require that, where a state provides for the teaching of a particular religion or belief in public schools, the same possibility should be granted to all religious or belief communities that are in a comparable position to those that have been granted this right.
With regard to RBMs in particular, R/B education must be linked to the right to promote one's own identity. For these minorities, knowledge of their R/B tradition is an indispensable tool for maintaining and developing their identity, which is one of the principles on which the entire system of protection of minority rights is based. In this perspective, R/B education in public schools can be considered one of the conditions that states must fulfill in order to promote the identity of religious minorities (see UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, A/RES/47/135, 3 February 1992, art. 1).  

Another fundamental principle underpinning minority rights is their participation in decision-making processes, particularly those that directly affect them. This makes it appropriate to involve minority representatives (among other stakeholders) in the preparation of the curriculum and teaching programs. This involvement has been included in the recommendations addressed in the Toledo Guiding Principles to the OSCE participating states on the subject of teaching about religions or beliefs:

Assess the process that leads to the development of curricula on teaching about religions and beliefs to make sure that this process is sensitive to the needs of various religious and belief communities and that all relevant stakeholders have an opportunity to have their voices heard (Recommendations, no. 4, pp. 15 and 77).

At the same time, the Toledo Guiding Principles highlight that

In the process of involving stakeholders, it is vital to strike an appropriate balance. A fundamental consideration is that teaching about religion should be based on sound scholarship, and not merely on what religious communities want said about themselves and others. Furthermore, while it is important to ensure that representatives of religious communities are allowed to give input and advice, this should not be taken to the extreme of giving them too much decision-making power at the cost of abdicating state responsibility. The European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that excessive involvement of religious authorities from one community in decisions that affect the rights of those belonging to another community may itself amount to a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief. On the other hand, courts have recognized that mere involvement of religious representatives in bodies formulating public educational policies does not constitute excessive entanglement of religious authorities in public decision making (pp. 64-65).

These guiding principles also apply to the choice of textbooks and can be extended to the countries where a system of “teaching of religion/belief" is in place. In this case too, representatives of the religions/beliefs taught in state schools should be involved, ensuring a careful balance between the different interests at stake.

 

Do students have the right to be exempted from attending R/B instruction (Cluster C)?

In relation to the right to opt out of R/B instruction, the international standards introduce a distinction between “teaching about religion or belief” and teaching of R/B as a transversal subject on one hand and “teaching of religion” on the other. In the first two cases, if the teaching is imparted in an objective and neutral manner, it is not necessary to grant students the right to be exempted from this teaching. The Toledo Guiding Principles state that the basic principle under international standards appears to be that teaching about religions and beliefs is permissible even if it is compulsory, so long as it is given “in a neutral and objective way" (p. 70).

In the second case, the teaching of a specific religion or belief is permitted on condition that students have the right to be exempted (through non-discriminatory procedures) or to attend other teachings (see UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence, CRC/C/GC/20, 6 December 2016, no. 43; UNESCO: General Conference, Convention against Discrimination in Education, 14 December 1960, art. 5).  

 

Manifestation of religion/belief at school: religious symbols, dietary requirements, religious holidays (Cluster D).

Art. 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees every child who is a member of a religious minority the right “to enjoy his or her own culture (and) to profess and practise his or her own religion”.Three manifestations of this latter right are considered here.

 

Religious Symbols

The issue of religious symbols worn by students at school is the subject of conflicting assessments. The ECtHR has held that the prohibition of wearing such symbols does not conflict with the right to religious freedom, while the United Nations Human Rights Committee has on several occasions taken the opposite view (see F. Bretscher, Protecting the Religious Freedom of New Minorities in International Law, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020).   In this situation, the Atlas followed the opinion of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, according to whom there is a “general presumption in favour of the possibility to wear religious symbols” even if it must be connected “with a number of caveats” (UN General Assembly: Human Rights Council, Report on the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, A/HCR/16/53, 15 December 2010, para. 44.  See also paras. 23 and 39) that emerge from the specific situations of each country. As highlighted by  H. Bielefeldt, N. Ghanea, & M. Wiener, Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016, pp. 430-431:

By generally accommodating the display of multiple religious symbols, the school can become a place in which students experience religious diversity, on a daily basis and in a relaxed manner, as part of normal social life. This may be conducive to fulfilling the purposes of education as listed in article 29(1)(d) of the CRC, including the “preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national, and religious groups, and persons of indigenous origin. 

The case of religious/belief symbols worn by teachers is more complex. Teachers may be in the position to influence, through their behavior, the choices of students, and a teacher's decision to wear symbols manifesting his or her religious or belief convictions may conflict both with the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions and with the right of the state to ensure a neutral system of R/B education (for the ECtHR case law on this issue see Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, Guide on Article 9).  

Based on these considerations, it was decided that, in the case of teachers, allowing or prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols does not lend itself to a positive or negative evaluation; in the case of students, however, even if the prohibition does not violate international standards, recognizing the students’ right to wear religious symbols can be considered a form of promoting RBM rights that deserves a positive evaluation.

Finally, some states require the display of symbols of a religion in the school buildings. The question of the possible conflict between this obligation and the right to freedom of religion or belief of students, their parents, teachers and school staff has been addressed by the constitutional courts of some EU countries, which have come to different conclusions. It has also been the subject of two ECtHR decisions in the Lautsi case: the first (application no. 30814/06, 3 November 2009)  held that the obligation to display a crucifix in Italian school classrooms violated the right to education considered jointly with the right to freedom of religion or belief, while the second (pronounced by the Grand Chamber; application no. 30814/06, 18 March 2011) came to the opposite conclusion.

In this situation of uncertainty, the Atlas followed the opinion expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, according to whom 

it may be difficult to reconcile the compulsory display of a religious symbol in all the classrooms with the State’s duty to uphold confessional neutrality in public education in order to include students of different religions or beliefs on the basis of equality and non-discrimination (A/HCR/16/53, para. 44).  

It was therefore considered that the obligation to display in public schools the symbols of only one religion - as a rule the majority religion - reflects neither an inclusive approach to the issue of RBMs nor an orientation respecting the state's impartiality toward all religions.

 

Compliance with dietary requirements.

As early as 1960 Arcot Krishnaswami wrote: “Rule 8.1. No one should be prevented from observing the dietary practices prescribed by his religion or belief. 2. Where the Government controls the means of production and distribution, it should place the objects necessary for observing dietary practices prescribed by particular religions or beliefs, or the means of producing them, at the disposal of members of those religions or beliefs" (Study of Discrimination in the Matter of Religious Rights and Practices, E/CN.4/Sub.2/200/Rev.1, p. 64). For further references, see the introduction to the policy area Spiritual Assistance.

 

Abstaining from work or school on religious holidays.

Article 6(h) of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief states that religious freedom includes the right “to observe days of rest and to celebrate holidays and ceremonies in accordance with the precepts of one's religion or belief" (the same concept is reiterated in UN Human Rights Committee (HCR), CCPR General Comment No. 22, par. 4).  

Moreover, the possibility for teachers belonging to RBMs to abstain from teaching on their religious holidays is part of the general provision mentioned in Article 6 of the 1957 ILO Weekly Rest Convention (No. 106). This convention, after stating (no. 3) that “The weekly rest period shall, wherever possible, coincide with the day of the week established as a day of rest by the traditions or customs of the country or district”, adds (no. 4): “The traditions and customs of religious minorities shall, as far as possible, be respected”.

This does not mean that the right of teachers and students to refrain from teaching or attending school on the occasion of their religious holidays is unreservedly recognized. The European Court of Human Rights has in various ways restricted the application of this right (see Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, Guide on Article 9, pp. 84-85)   while the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief have repeatedly stressed the desirability to “promote policies of “reasonable accommodation” for individual members of minorities to enable them to live in conformity with their convictions” (UN General Assembly: Human Rights Council, Report on the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, A/HRC/22/51, 24 December 2012, para. 29) and, with direct reference to students, have insisted on the need to find responses that take into account “the particularities of pupils from minority groups” (UN General Assembly: World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Reports, Studies and Other Documentation for the Preparatory Committee and the World Conference, A/CONF.189/PC.2/22, 3 May 2001, para. 84).  

In the absence of clear international standards, the possibility of celebrating one's own religious holidays while abstaining from work or school attendance was considered to help protect and develop the identity of religious minorities.
On the specific issue of Christian religious holidays, see the introduction to the policy area Spiritual Assistance.

Silvio Ferrari and Alessia Passarelli

 

 

 

GUIDE TO READING DATA

This guide provides some keys to interpreting the three indices (P-index, E-index and G-index) built on the basis of the Atlas data.

 

P-index (States)

1.      Overall, RBM rights in public schools are most promoted in six countries that have very different legal traditions: France and Estonia, whose legal systems are inspired by the principle of separation between the state and religious organizations, Sweden, where the main provisions concerning the organization of the majority Church are laid down in a state act, and Poland and Romania, which have a tradition of state cooperation with religious groups. This data appears significant because it indicates that different systems of relations between state and religion can, under certain conditions, promote the RBM rights. This means that there is no system that is a priori better than the others and it is therefore not necessary to abandon one to adopt the other.

2.     A similar remark applies to models of religious/belief education. In France religion/belief is taught in the context of other disciplines, in Estonia and Sweden there is a system of teaching about religion, in the public schools of Poland and Romania specific religions are taught (teaching of religion). This data shows that, if certain conditions are met, the various systems of religious/belief education can promote RBM rights just as well.

3.     France and Poland are at the top of the ladder of the promotion of RBM rights. After them all the other countries come, with the nations with a Protestant religious tradition (Finland and Sweden) better placed than those with Catholic traditions (Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Austria).

4.     In conclusion, the scores show that the RBM rights can be promoted equally well within countries that have different cultural and religious traditions, different systems of relations between state and religions and different models of religious/belief education. The real issue (which will be examined in more detail with reference to specific clusters) are the conditions that, within each legal, cultural or religious tradition, make it possible to promote these rights.

5.     Disaggregating the data by cluster aids a better understanding of these initial findings.

Clusters A and B.

The first set of data (clusters A and B) concerns the right of RBMs to teach their doctrines in public schools. Before examining this data, it is necessary to remember that in the countries taken into consideration by the research different systems of religious instruction (for a broader description of these systems, see the section “What we are talking about” in this page) are in place. On the one hand, there are the countries (Estonia, Finland, Sweden) where there is a system of teaching about religion/belief and France where the "enseignement des faits religieux" takes place within the teaching of other subjects. On the other hand, there are countries where specific religions are taught and, within more or less strict limits, students are given the possibility to choose the teaching they wish to follow. These two systems of teaching are inspired by profoundly different principles that make any attempt at comparison very complex.

In the countries where specific religions/beliefs are taught, the legal system that most promotes the rights of minorities is that of Poland, where a large number of RBMs have the right to teach their doctrines to students who request it, teachers are paid by the State, and RBMs have wide autonomy in matters of choice of curriculum and textbooks. The fact that the Polish legal system is particularly inclusive does not, however, exclude that, as is often the case in countries with a system of teaching of religion, smaller RBMs face significant practical obstacles in activating the teaching of their religion: as a result, the rights recognized by the legal system remain in some cases unfulfilled. This is also true in Romania, where the right to teach one's own doctrine in public schools is guaranteed to a smaller (but still significant) number of RBMs than in Poland. The other countries which have adopted this system do not score very well because the number of RBMs which have the right to teach their doctrine is small (Spain), non-existent (Greece) or, as in Italy, the teaching about “the religious fact and its implications” can be provided by many minorities but is subject to significant limitations.  In the remaining countries a system of teaching about religion (Estonia, Finland, Sweden) or teaching religion as a transversal subject (France) is in place. The strength of these systems is the possibility of providing students with information about a wide range of religions/beliefs. However, in some of them (France) religious instruction risks being marginalized and in others (Estonia) schools may offer this instruction but are not obliged to do so (the majority of Estonian schools do not provide specific teaching concerning religion).  

Cluster C.

The third cluster shows that students are guaranteed the right not to attend any course where a specific religion is taught (teaching of religion).  Although in some countries this right has been recognized only recently or with some limitations (for example in Finland, if religious education for one’s own religion or denomination is available, the student has no right to opt out of it), this data confirms the central role that the legal systems of European countries recognize to the freedom of conscience of students and their parents. The right to opt out from religious education is not recognized in all the countries where there is a system of teaching about religion, but this absence is not in contrast with international standards. In Estonia, religious/belief education is optional and is provided, in the form of teaching about religion/belief, only to students who request it: for this reason, the problem of exemption from teaching does not arise. 

Cluster D.

The fourth cluster considers three different rights: the right of students to wear religious/belief symbols, the right of teachers and students to abstain from giving or attending classes on their religious holidays and the right to receive food not forbidden by their religion; it also considers the display of religious/belief symbols by the school. With regard to the first and third right, there is a high degree of uniformity. No country has introduced, at the national level, provisions prohibiting students from wearing religious symbols except, limited to "ostentatoires" symbols, France; all countries provide that students may obtain, as far as possible, food not prohibited by their religion or belief. The right of abstaining from lessons on religious holidays, on the other hand, is regulated differently: the legal systems of Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and "secular" France contain norms that recognize this right, those of Austria and Greece limit it to students and those of Belgium (except in the Flemish region), Estonia, Finland and Sweden do not provide for it. With reference to these last three countries, one has the impression, supported by the data on spiritual assistance, that their legal systems prefer to regulate religious/belief manifestations through general rules that apply to the manifestations of freedom of conscience or expression. In Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and, as if to temper the effectiveness of the principle of secularism, France, religious manifestations are regulated by norms specifically intended for them. Lastly, as far as the display of religious/belief symbols by schools is concerned, there is a clear division between Austria and Italy, where there is an obligation to display the symbols of the majority religion (Christianity), France and Belgium (where the display of religious symbols is forbidden) and all the other countries where there are no legal provisions explicitly regulating this matter.

 

P-index (RBMs)

6.     This index confirms trends emerging from indexes that concern the other policy areas. The rights of Christian minorities are much more promoted than those of any other religious group, except the Jewish communities; it also confirms that there are no significant differences between the Christian churches. Equally confirmed is the lack of promotion - for different reasons - of the rights of the Sikhs communities, Scientology and Belief organizations. In the group of RBMs that lies between these two extremes, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Buddhist communities score slightly better than the Mormons and the Hindu religious organizations. On a higher step are placed the Jewish and Muslim communities, with a clear prevalence of the former over the latter: in the field of education, Jewish communities score higher than in any other policy area, to the point of catching up with Christian Churches.  

7.     Breaking down the data by cluster helps explain these differences.

The greater promotion of the rights of Jewish communities compared to Muslim ones is fundamentally due to the discipline they receive in two countries, Greece and Italy. In both, Jewish communities enjoy rights provided by an ad hoc law (in the Italian case based on an agreement). In Greece this law allows students of Jewish religion to abstain from attending school on their religious holidays. In Italy this difference extends to teachers and also affects the teaching of religion: the representatives of the Jewish community can teach Judaism to students who request it, while the same possibility is not provided for students who want to deepen their knowledge of Islam. Religious instruction is also the main cause of difference between Buddhist and Hindu communities: in Austria, only the former can provide it. Finally, if we compare the data on Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, we can see that the position of Mormons, as far as religious education is concerned, is better in Italy (where, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses, they have an agreement with the State) and worse in Romania (Mormons, unlike Jehovah's Witnesses, are not a recognized religious organization and therefore cannot access public schools to teach their religion).  

Finally, the particularly low score of the Catholic Church in cluster B (teaching of religion) needs to be explained. This score depends on the fact that the Catholic Church is a minority religious organization only in three of the countries where this system of religious education is in place (Greece, Romania and Hungary) and in one of them (Greece) only Orthodox religion is taught in public schools. In this country, therefore, the Catholic Church receives the same negative score (-1) as all the other religious minorities, but while many of the latter balance this negative score with the positive ones obtained in the other countries, the Catholic Church can avail itself of a positive score only in the two countries (Romania and Hungary) where it is not the majority religious organization. 

 

E-index (States)

8.     Alongside the promotion index, the Atlas offers an index that measures the equal treatment of RBMs in each country. This index shows that Romania is the country where differences between RBMs are greater while in Sweden, Estonia, and Finland there are virtually nonexistent. It should be kept in mind that this indicator, taken alone, does not reveal whether the rights of RBMs are equally promoted or restricted. For this reason, the E-index should be considered in conjunction with the P-index.

 

G-index (States and RBMs)

9.     This index lends itself to an interesting consideration. The countries where the gap between majority religious organization and RBMs is largest are, in descending order, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Romania, four countries with an Orthodox or Catholic tradition. Those where the same gap is smaller (actually nonexistent) are Sweden and Finland, two countries with Protestant traditions in Northern Europe. The other countries are in an intermediate position, with separatist France at the top (i.e., with a smaller gap). A pattern seems to take shape based on cultural differences (Northern Europe v. the rest of Europe) and religious differences (Protestant tradition v. Catholic and Orthodox tradition).

If we move from the analysis of the states to that of the RBMs, the distance between the majority organization and the individual RBMs appears to be mirror image of the distance between the individual RBMs found in the P-index concerning RBMs.

 

RESOURCES

The main principles that should guide the R/B education in public schools can be found in

ODIHR Advisory Council of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief (2007). Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools. Warsaw: OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)

Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly (Twenty-seventh Sitting) (2005). Recommendation 1720(2005): Education and religion

For the case law of the ECtHR see 

Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights (2021). Guide on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights: Freedom of thought, Conscience and religion. Strasbourg: Council of Europe/European Court of Human Rights 

Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights (2021). Guide on Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Strasbourg: Council of Europe/European Court of Human Rights

An overview of R/B instruction in the public schools of the EU countries is provided by 

Robbers, G. (Ed.). (2011). Religion in Public Education. Trier: European Consortium for Church and State Research

On the role played by the Council of Europe in this field see

Jackson, R. (2018). Human rights in relation to education about religions and world views: the contribution of the Council of Europe to classroom religious education, in Journal of Religious Education, 66, pp. 85-97. 

On the case-law of the ECtHR see 

Fokas, E. (2018). Religion and Education in the Shadow of the European Court of Human Rights, in Politics and Religion, 12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-8