Religious Education (RE) classes in Europe can spark controversies in a number of ways. One is the endorsement of a particular religion or life philosophy in the process of teaching the materials to a diverse student body coming from a variety of different faiths and cultures. Another can be the outing of students’ individual faith or parents’/household faith of the student in the context of discrimination or prejudice within the larger culture or in the school for children of other faiths.
A further controversy may occur with the standard educational reason for insufficient teaching of the RE curriculum for various reasons, akin to skimming over evolutionary biology because of the legitimate fear of backlash from religious-creationist parents. A more obscure one, but not necessarily uncommon, can happen when the education minister and theologians come into conflict with one another. In Greece, recently, the controversy centred on the need for parents to submit a Solemn Declaration for their children to opt-out of the RE class.
The National Secular Society reported on a recent case in some depth. The NSS stated that five Greek students and parents brought forth a case to challenge the requirement of a solemn declaration for opting out of RE classes. They would be required to stipulate that they – the students – were not Orthodox Christians in the request for opting out of the RE class. This can carry social risks with 81-90% of the population self-identifying as Greek Orthodox Christian.
The students, if required to stipulate their faith tradition differing from the Greek Orthodox Church, may be exposed to intrusion and coercion from the school authorities and their classmates. In addition to this, the exemption viewed individual belief structures as bound to belief groups and, therefore, neglected the rights of individuals in the light of the freedom of religion and freedom of belief. Both amount to sovereign individual rights, not collective rights seen in the assumption of belief groups as homogeneous as if one mind.
More importantly, making it necessary for students to reveal their religious beliefs in order to receive an exemption from Religious Education classes is unconstitutional. In a unanimous ruling, on Thursday the 31st of October, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Europe’s top human rights court, ruled that Greek authorities do not have the right to oblige students to reveal their religious beliefs for any reason. “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 ECHR’s ruling said.
The Education Minister of Greece, Niki Kerameus, pledged to abide by the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and alter the ways in which RE classes take place in Greece as well as revise the procedure to ask for an exemption from the course. This ruling essentially puts in practice changes which the former Minister of Education, Nikos Filis, under the left-wing SYRIZA government, sought to make. In particular, Filis attempted to make RE in Greek schools more secular, diverse, and less focused on Christianity.
As it is currently the case, the nature of RE classes is catechistic and indoctrinates students in the Greek Orthodox religion. Because of this, Nikos Filis put forward certain proposals through which he hoped to modernize RE and enable students to learn about religions other than Christianity. However, the proposed changes were deemed unconstitutional by Greece’s Council of State on the grounds that the government’s plan “distorted the purpose of [religious] teaching, which is, according to the Constitution, to develop pupils’ Orthodox Christian conscience”. The Council of State’s stance and its focus on developing “pupils’ Orthodox Christian conscience” is not surprising given the fact that Greece is one of the few countries in Europe which has a state religion.
In fact, religion plays a major role not only in the everyday lives of Greek people and in the political scene but also in the education system. It is common for schools in Greece to have compulsory morning prayer, religious icons in classes, to take trips of religious context, or to host ‘blessing rituals’ at the start of the academic year. Sometimes, it takes regional human rights cases to bring this to light.
In the end, Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights was ruled as breached in the ECHR court case with Article 2 of Protocol 1 protecting the right to an education. It states:
No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
The NSS stated, “The article requires states to ‘respect’ parents’ rights to ensure education and teaching is “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions… The court ruled that the declaration requirement risked ‘placing an undue burden on parents’ and exposing ‘sensitive aspects of their private life.’”
The intervention portion from the NSS was drafted by Professor Ronan McCrea of UCL with input from Harry Small and Sadikur Rahman. With the efforts of the students and the parents, and the support of the NSS and its drafters of the NSS intervention, individual religious and belief rights have remained more respected than before.