Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Judgment on Non-Religious Education in Poland

Human rights in classrooms - it seems to be a topic of increasing popularity (or concern) in Strasbourg these days. Yesterday, the Court issued its judgment in the case of Grzelak v. Poland. The case concerned a Polish boy who refused to attend reilgious education in the various primary (and later secondary) schools he attended for reasons of personal conviction, with the full approval of his parents who were agnostics. Since, for a lack of other pupils in a similar situation no alternative courses such as ethics were offered, he had to spend such hours alone, apart from the other pupils. According to his parents that made him the subject of social ridicule and exclusion. In spite of various demands by the parents, no inter-school ethics were organised, since the number of interested pupils was too small. On his school reports, the place was the mark for religion/ethics was instead filled up by a straight line.

The first complaint related to the fact that the marking with a line, although seemingly neutral in effect revealed the convictions of the applicant against his will. For in practice, most schools did not offer ethics courses but only religious ones. A straight line under the heading 'religion/ethics' thus would reveal more than one might want. The Court considered this part of the complaint under Articles 9 (freedom of religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken together. First the Court re-emphasized that Articel 9 also protected non-believers. In para. 87 it held:

It necessarily follows that there will be an interference with the negative aspect of this provision when the State brings about a situation in which individuals are obliged – directly or indirectly – to reveal that they are non-believers. This is all the more important when such obligation occurs in the context of the provision of an important public service such as education.
It continued by noting, in para. 93, on religious information:

The Court reiterates that religious beliefs do not constitute information that can be used to distinguish an individual citizen in his relations with the State. Not only are they a matter of individual conscience, they may also, like other information, change over a person's lifetime (see, mutatis mutandis, Sofianopoulos and Others v. Greece (dec.), nos. 1977/02, 1988/02 and 1997/02, ECHR 2002-X; and Sinan Işık v. Turkey, no. 21924/05, § 42, 2 February 2010). Although the above cases concerned identity cards, documents of arguably greater significance in a person's life than school reports for primary and secondary education, the Court nonetheless finds that similar considerations apply to the present case.
Especially in a country like Poland, with a great majority of the people adhering to one specific religion, the situation of the boy took on a "particular significance" (para. 95). In this case, in the Court's view, the very core of the boy's right not to manifest his convictions was infringed.

The second complaint related to the refusal to offer alternative courses in ethics to the boy. On that matter, the Court concluded under Article 2 of Protocol 1 (right to education) that Poland had remained within its margin of appreciation. After all, both religious and ethics education were optional and not compulsory, subject to the requirement that a minimum number of students is interested. The practice in Poland of a minimum seven pupils for such classes was in that sense not deemed unreasonable. No violation on that count therefore.

The Court was at pains to distinguish the case from its own decision in Saniewski v. Poland of 2001, in which it declared a very similar complaint on the straight line in school reports "manifestly ill-founded". The only dissenting judge in the Grzelak case, David Thór Björgvinsson, quite convincingly points out that the two cases are not that different. It seems rather that the Court, nine years later simply takes a different position. It would have been clearer if it would have openly argued so.