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Compulsory Swimming Lessons in School: At the heart of conflicts between secularism and religious beliefs

by Dr. Rekha Oleschak is senior research fellow at the Institute of Federalism, Switzerland.

Last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECrtHR) published a decision on the case of Osmanoǧlu and Kocabaş v. Switzerland (application no. 29086/12), concerning two young school children, whose parents found that compulsory swimming lessons in gender-mixed classes constituted an infringement of their religious beliefs and thus a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion).

As background information, it would be of interest to readers that the Swiss Federal Supreme Court has had the opportunity several times to deal with the issue of dispensation from swimming lessons and has not always taken the same position. For a very interesting analysis of the past Supreme Court decisions, please read the article by Johannes Reich in the International Journal of Constitutional Law, (2009) “Switzerland: Freedom of creed and conscience, immigration, and public schools in the postsecular state—compulsory coeducational swimming instruction revisited” (downloadable at https://www.rwi.uzh.ch/dam/jcr:5508dae1-05d6-4dd8-a3f2-37681ab1e109/J_Reich_Switzerland_Freedom_of_Creed_and_Conscience_Immigration_Public_Schools_Postsecular_State_7_ICON_754_2009.pdf)

The ECrtHR decision found that the interests of the children being integrated in the school life and participating in compulsory school curriculum was to be weighed higher than the religious beliefs. In a well-reasoned decision, the Court found that the measures taken, i.e. the refusal to exempt the children from swimming lessons and the fines imposed were proportionate and that there had been no violation of Article 9 ECHR. The Court observed that “the children’s interest in a full education, facilitating their successful social integration according to local customs and mores, took precedence over the parents’ wish to have their daughters exempted from mixed swimming lessons and that the children’s interest in attending swimming lessons was not just to learn to swim, but above all to take part in that activity with all the other pupils, with no exception on account of the children’s origin or their parents’ religious or philosophical convictions”.

 The media coverage of the case is quite interesting. While one section of the press covered the cases in a factual manner, others seemed to highlight the fact that the case involved Muslim parents, which would imply that Muslim parents are unwilling to integrate their children into the Swiss society. These newspaper articles ignore the fact that requests for exemption not only come from Muslim parents, but also from conservative Christian parents. This kind of coverage is problematic given that in the last few months, extensive media coverage has been given to the case of two teenage pupils refusing to shake hands with their teacher on religious grounds and the case of two young girls having been refused the Swiss citizenship based on the non-participation in swimming lessons. Swimming lessons somehow seem to epitomise the conflicting relationship between secular school curriculum and religious beliefs, at the same time escalating into the area of citizenship laws and definitions of integration. Biased media coverage is also difficult in times of increased vehemence against foreigners, several popular initiatives which have targeted foreigners in the past few years and the latest political advertisements on display in major Swiss cities against simpler procedures for naturalisation of third generation immigrants. The latter shows a burka clad woman, who is portrayed as representing the aforementioned third generation and of course constitutes a (veiled)- threat to the progressive Swiss society!

 Reference: The ECrtHR Decision is in French, a press release in English and other documents can be found here http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{“itemid”:[“001-170346”]}

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