Europe declares compulsory Religious Education an abuse of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Turkey’s implementation of compulsory courses on religious culture and ethics in Turkish primary and secondary schools is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, urging the Turkish government to bring the Turkish educational system and domestic legislation into conformity with Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, which covers the right to education.

The applicants who filed the complaint with the European court in January 2004 are Hasan Zengin, 47, and his daughter Eylem Zengin, 19, who adhere to Alevism. When the complaint was lodged, Eylem was attending the seventh grade at a public school in İstanbul’s Avcılar district. As a pupil at a public school, she was obliged to attend classes in religious culture and ethics.

Under Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution and section 12 of Basic Law No. 1739 on national education, religious culture and ethics is a compulsory subject in Turkish primary and secondary schools. In February 2001 the applicant submitted a request to the Provincial Directorate of National Education for his daughter to be exempted from lessons in religious culture and ethics. When the authorities refused his request, Hasan Zengin applied to the administrative courts, arguing that the course in question was incompatible with the principle of secularism and that the lessons, which were based on the teaching of Sunni Islam, were not neutral.

On Dec. 28, 2001, the İstanbul Administrative Court rejected the application on the grounds that the course in religious culture and ethics was in accordance with the Constitution and with Turkish legislation. The applicant applied to the Supreme Administrative Court, which upheld the judgment on Aug. 5, 2003.

The applicants maintain that the way in which religious culture and ethics is taught in Turkey infringes Eylem’s right to freedom of religion and her parents’ right to ensure her education is in conformity with their religious convictions.

After declaring the complaint file admissible in June 2006, the Strasbourg-based court held unanimously yesterday that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 — the right to education — of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Under Article 41 of the Convention, which covers just satisfaction, the court held that the discovery of a violation provided in itself sufficient just satisfaction for the non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicants. Under Article 46, covering binding force and execution of judgments, it considered that the above violation originated in a problem with the implementation of the religious instruction syllabus in Turkey and the absence of appropriate methods to ensure respect for parents’ convictions. Consequently it also held that bringing the Turkish education system and domestic legislation into conformity with Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 would also represent an appropriate form of compensation. Lastly, the applicants were awarded, jointly, 3,726.80 euros for costs and expenses, less the sum of 850 euros granted in legal aid.

Rıza Türmen, the Turkish member of the European Court of Human Rights whose term will expire in a few months, was among a chamber of seven judges which made Tuesday’s decision.

Although religious education is a compulsory subject in British schools, parents have the right to exclude their children from both RE and collective worship.

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