Greece’s condemnation as students’ parents were being forced to sign a statement that they were not Christian Orthodox in order for their children to exempt from religious education classes, revealing their religious faith

JUDGMENT

Papageorgiou and others v. Greece  31.10.2019 (no. 4762/18 and 6140/18)

see here

SUMMARY

The case concerned compulsory religious education in Greek schools. The European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there
had been: a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (right to education) to the European Convention on Human Rights, interpreted in the light of Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion). The Court stressed that the authorities did not have the right to oblige individuals to reveal their beliefs. However, the current system in Greece for exempting children from religious education classes required parents to submit a solemn declaration saying that their children were not Orthodox Christians. That requirement placed an undue burden on parents to disclose information from which it could be inferred that they and their children held, or did not hold, a specific religious belief.

Moreover, such a system could even deter parents from making an exemption request, especially in a case such as that of the applicants, who lived on small islands where the great majority of the population owed allegiance to a particular religion and the risk of stigmatisation was much higher.

COMMENT

Theis decision is the continuation of a series of decisions banning the disclosure of citizens’ religious beliefs. For the European Court  it is just as important not to impede religious freedom and the exercise of religious duties as well as to create a framework that does not reveal the religious belief of the citizen either positively or negatively.

In this case, following this important decision, a legislative framework should be established so that the religious exemption process is not carried out in a way that reveals the religious beliefs or not of the parents and pupils.

A simple solution would be to file a simple application for exemption from religious classes without any justification merely expressing the unwillingness to attend the course.

PROVISIONS

Article 2 of Protocol no. 1

Article 9

PRINCIPAL FACTS 

The applicants are five Greek nationals, parents and children, who live on the small Greek islands of
Milos and Sifnos. The first three applicants are Petros Papageorgiou and Ekaterini Berdologlou and
their daughter, Maria Rafaella Papageorgiou; the fourth and fifth applicants are Rodopi
Anastasiadou and her daughter Smaragda Raviolou.

Under the Greek Constitution and other legislative texts, such as the Law on Education and various
ministerial decisions, religious education is mandatory for all schoolchildren at primary and
secondary level.

In July 2017 the applicants asked the Supreme Administrative Court to annul two recent ministerial
decisions establishing the religious education programme for the 2017/18 school year. At the time
Maria Rafaella Papageorgiou was in the third and final grade of Milos General High School, while
Smaragda Raviolou was in the fourth grade of Sifnos primary school.

The applicants asked to have their case examined under an urgent procedure before the start of the
new school year but the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed their requests for lack of
importance.

Nor did that court ever adjudicate on their case because the initial hearing scheduled kept on being
adjourned until September 2018, by which time the school year had already finished.

In their applications the applicants extensively argued that the procedure for exemption from
religious classes was contrary to the European Convention.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT

The Court decided to examine the applicants’ complaint from the standpoint of Article 2 of Protocol
No. 1 to the Convention which gives parents the right to demand respect from the State for their
religious and philosophical convictions in the teaching of religion. It also read that provision in the
light of Article 9 of the Convention which guarantees schoolchildren the right to an education in a
form which respects their right to believe or not to believe.

Firstly, the Court considered that the main issue in the case was that if the applicant parents had
wanted to have their children exempted from religious education classes, they would have been
obliged to submit a solemn declaration saying that their children were not Orthodox Christians.
Such an exemption mechanism – or the option of attending a lesson in a substitute subject – was
moreover offered by almost all of the member States. However, in the Court’s view, what mattered
was whether the conditions for exemption or opting out were likely to place an undue burden on
parents, for example by requiring them to disclose their religious or philosophical convictions.
The Court found that such had been the situation of the applicant parents who would have been
forced into submitting a declaration from which it could have been inferred that they and their
children held, or did not hold, a specific religious belief.

Indeed, the current system in Greece for exempting children from religious education classes risked
exposing sensitive aspects of the applicants’ private life. The system could moreover deter them
from making such a request as it involved the school principal having to verify the information on
the declaration and alerting the public prosecutor in the event of a discrepancy. The potential for
conflict was accentuated in the case of the applicants who lived on small islands where the great
majority of the population owed allegiance to one particular religion and the risk of stigmatisation
was much higher than in big cities. Furthermore, as pointed out by the applicants, no other classes were offered to exempted pupils, meaning they would have lost hours of schooling just for their declared beliefs.

Stressing that the authorities did not have the right to intervene in the sphere of individual
conscience, to ascertain individuals’ religious belief or to oblige them to reveal their beliefs, the
Court held that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, as interpreted in the light of
Article 9 of the Convention.

Just satisfaction (Article 41)

The Court held that Greece was to pay 8,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage,
jointly, to the first three applicants and the same amount, jointly, to the fourth and fifth applicants.
It awarded EUR 6,566.52 to the first three applicants in respect of costs and expenses.


ECHRCaseLaw

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