ECHR judgment of October 31, 2019 in the case of Papageorgiou and Others v. Greece (applications Nos. 4762/18 and 6140/18).
In 2018, the applicants were assisted in preparing applications. Subsequently, the applications were consolidated and communicated by Greece.
In the case, applications about the obligation of parents to provide school principals with written statements stating that their children are not Orthodox Christians to release the latter from religious education lessons, leaving these statements in the school archives, and the right of school principals to verify whether the information specified in the statements have been successfully considered truthful. The case has violated the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Circumstances of the case
The complaint N 4762/18 concerned three applicants, namely the parents and their daughter (child), complaint N 6140/18 - the mother and daughter (also the child). The girls were students of schools on two small Greek islands.
The parent applicants complained that they were required to provide written statements in order to demand the release of their children from religious education in the respective schools. They also complained that these statements should have remained in the school’s archives, and the principal had the right to verify that the information provided therein was true.
QUESTIONS OF LAW
Regarding compliance with Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention. The main issue that was raised in the complaints concerned the obligation of parents to submit to the director of the relevant school a written statement also signed by the teacher stating that their children were not Orthodox Christians in order to free the latter from religious education.
In accordance with the second part of Article 16 of the Constitution and the Law on Education, religious education lessons were compulsory for all students. However, a circular dated January 23, 2015 stipulated that students who were not Orthodox Christians, but who belonged to other religious or doctrinal denominations or did not belong to any religion, and referred to reasons related to religion, could be exempted from visiting lesson data. In accordance with the third part of Article 25 of the decision of the Minister of Education of January 23, 2018, this procedure was upheld.
The 2015 Circular did not require the provision of religious justification in the exemption statement. However, parents were required to submit to the school principal a written statement also signed by the teacher stating that their child was not an Orthodox Christian. The director’s powers included checking documents confirming the information specified in the application, as well as drawing the attention of parents to the seriousness of their application.
Verification of the seriousness of the written statement suggested that the school principal was entitled to check whether the statement contained false information, namely, the birth certificate, which indicated the religious affiliation of the parents and which should have been provided to the school administration, corresponded to the statement. In addition, “religion” was a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools and in high school according to relevant decisions of the ministry. In the event of inconsistency of information, the school principal was obliged to inform the prosecutor that a false statement was submitted, since this action was a crime.
The existing system for exempting children from religious education classes could place a heavy burden on the parents and the risk of inappropriate disclosure of their personal lives. The possibility of conflict could also discourage them from making such an application, especially if they lived in a small and religious community, such as the small Greek islands, where the risk of conviction was higher than in large cities. The parent applicants did not submit such an application, not only for fear of declaring that they were not Orthodox Christians, in an environment in which the majority of the population belonged to this religion, but also because, as they noted, to students who were exempted from religious education lessons, no other activities were offered, and the children lost school hours simply because their parents expressed their religious beliefs.
Although the parent applicants were not required to declare their beliefs, the fact that they had to submit a written statement was tantamount to forcing them to act, from which it could be concluded that they and their children did or did not share these or other religious views.
In its cases before it, the Court stated that freedom of religion also included a negative aspect, namely the personal right not to express one's religious beliefs and not to be obliged to act in such a way as to allow others to draw conclusions regarding the presence or absence of such beliefs. In the present case, the Greek authorities did not have the right to intervene in the sphere of individual consciousness and to check the presence of persons of certain religious beliefs or to force them to express their beliefs on spiritual issues.
In view of the foregoing, the Court rejected the Government's preliminary argument that the applicant parents had not used the procedure for obtaining exemption from lessons. Furthermore, the Court concludes that there has been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in the light of Articles 8 and 9 of the Convention.
In the case there was a violation of the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention (adopted unanimously).
In application of Article 41 of the Convention. The Court awarded EUR 8,000 jointly to the applicants in application no. 4762/18 and EUR 8,000 jointly to the applicants in application no. 6140/18.