What are the legal restrictions on how we should teach religious studies in school?

There is guidance on this issue in a recent case. In Zengin v Turkey [2007] ECHR 1448/04, the European Court considered whether the compulsory teaching in primary and secondary schools of religious culture and ethics was in breach of a pupil’s human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is part of English law by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998. The convention provides that no person shall be denied the right to education, and that the state must respect the right of parents to ensure such education in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions (Article 2 of the First Protocol). British courts must have regard to the principles set out in European Convention case law.

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Facts of the case The applicant father was a follower of a belief or philosophy, Alevism, that is widespread in Turkey. Alevism rejects orthodox Islam, and defends freedom of religion, human rights, women’s rights, humanism, democracy, rationalism, modernism, universalism, tolerance and secularism.

The father had asked the directorate of national education to exempt his daughter from religious culture and ethics classes, saying that:

  • his family followed Alevism
  • under international treaties parents had the right to choose the education that their children received
  • the compulsory course in religious culture and ethics was incompatible with the principle of secularism, and essentially based on the fundamental rules of Hanafite Islam
  • no teaching was given of his own faith

‘Objective, critical, pluralistic’
The directorate refused the father’s request. He took his case to the European court, which said that:

  • the right to education was grafted onto the right of parents to respect
  • for their religious convictions. Art 2 aimed to safeguard the possibility of pluralism in education, which was essential for a democratic society
  • Art 2 did not permit a distinction between religious instruction and other subjects. The state must respect parents’ convictions, religious or philosophical, across the entire state education programme
  • the state must not indoctrinate
  • in a pluralist democratic society the state’s duty of impartiality towards religions and beliefs was incompatible with any assessment by the state of the legitimacy of such beliefs or the ways in which they were expressed

Art 2 did not prevent the state from imparting information of a directly or indirectly religious or philosophical kind. It did not allow parents to object to the integration of such education in the curriculum — but it did mean that the state had to convey the curriculum in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner.

Duty of education authority
The European Court stressed that the authorities must ensure schools do not disregard parents’ religious and philosophical convictions through carelessness, lack of judgment or misplaced proselytising.

Exemption

The European Court said that exemption is not an appropriate method for protecting Art 2 rights. Exemption does not prevent children from feeling a conflict between the school and their parents’ values. The legal duty lies in the teaching itself — which should be done in a way that respects all pupils’ beliefs. In this case, the refusal to grant the applicants a full exemption from religious culture and ethics classes was a violation of Art 2.


Relevance to the UK

This situation could arise in a British school — particularly through ‘lack of judgment or misplaced proselytising or an excess of enthusiasm’ (in the words of the European Court in Zengin v Turkey). The UK has a reservation to the effect that the principle affirmed in  Art 2 is accepted only in so far as it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure. It is unlikely that this reservation would prevent a UK court from adopting exactly the same approach in similar circumstances to that adopted by the European Court in this case.

Michael Segal is a district judge in the family division of the High Court

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