Papageorgiou and Others v. Greece (European Court of Human Rights)

Information Note on the Court’s case-law 233
October 2019

Papageorgiou and Others v. Greece4762/18 and 6140/18

Judgment 31.10.2019 [Section I]

Article 2 of Protocol No. 1
Respect for parents’ religious convictions

Parents obliged to submit solemn declaration, with teacher’s countersignature, as to non-Orthodox Christian status of children for exemption from religious education course: violation

Facts – Application no. 4762/18 concerned three applicants, namely two parents and their daughter (a child); and application no. 6140/18 concerned a mother and her daughter (also a child). The two children were students at schools on two small Greek islands.

The parent applicants complained that they were obliged to submit a solemn declaration to seek exemptions for their children from a religious education course. They also complained that such declarations had to be kept with the school records and that the relevant school principal had to enquire whether their content was true.

Law – Article 2 of Protocol No. 1: The main issue raised had been that of the obligation on the parents to submit to the principal of each school a solemn declaration in writing, countersigned by a teacher, declaring that their daughters were not Orthodox Christians, in order for the latter to be exempted from the religious education course.

Under both Article 16 § 2 of the Constitution and the Education Act, the religious education course was mandatory for all students. However, a circular of 23 January 2015 provided that non-Orthodox Christian students – that is to say, students with a different religious or doctrinal affiliation, or non-religious students who relied on grounds of religious conscience – could be exempted from attending the course. This exemption procedure had been maintained in force by Article 25 § 3 of a decision of the Minister of Education dated 23 January 2018.

The 2015 circular did not require religious justification to be provided in the exemption form. However, the parents had been obliged to submit to the relevant school principal a solemn declaration in writing, countersigned by a teacher, stating that their child was not an Orthodox Christian. That school principal had the responsibility of checking the documentation in support of the grounds relied on by the parents and drawing their attention to the seriousness of the solemn declaration they had filed.

Checking the seriousness of the solemn declaration implied that the school principal was to verify whether it contained false information, namely whether the birth certificate of the child which indicated the parents’ religion and which must be submitted to the school authorities corresponded to the solemn declaration. In addition, “religion” as a subject was compulsory in primary, middle and high school, as well as in certificates of studies, under the relevant ministerial decisions. Where there was a discrepancy, the school principal had to alert the public prosecutor that a false solemn declaration had been submitted, since it was a criminal offence.

The current system of exemption for children from the religious education course was capable of placing a heavy burden on parents with a risk of undue exposure of their private life; the potential for conflict was also likely to deter them from making such a request, especially if they lived in a small and religiously compact society, as was the case with the small Greek islands, where the risk of stigmatisation was much more likely than in large cities. The parent applicants had actually been deterred from making such a request not only for fear of revealing that they were not Orthodox Christians in an environment in which the great majority of the population owed allegiance to one particular religion, but also because, as they had pointed out, there had been no other course offered to exempted students and they had been made to lose school hours simply because of their declared beliefs.

Although the parent applicants had been under no obligation to disclose their convictions, the fact that they had been required to submit a solemn declaration had amounted to forcing them to adopt behaviour from which it might be inferred that they themselves and their children held, or did not hold, any specific religious beliefs.

In its previous cases the Court had stated that the freedom to manifest one’s beliefs also contained a negative aspect, namely the individual’s right not to manifest his or her religion or religious beliefs and not to be obliged to act in such a way as to enable conclusions to be drawn as to whether he or she held – or did not hold – such beliefs. In the present case the State authorities had not had the right to intervene in the sphere of individual conscience and to ascertain individuals’ religious beliefs or oblige them to reveal their beliefs concerning spiritual matters.

Having regard to the foregoing, the Government’s objection of non-exhaustion was dismissed as regards the applicants’ omission to use the exemption procedure. Moreover, the Court concluded that there had been a breach of the rights of the applicants under the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, as interpreted in the light of Articles 8 and 9 of the Convention.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

Article 41: The Court awarded, in respect of non-pecuniary damage, 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.

(See also Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, 1448/04, 9 October 2007, Information Note 101; Alexandridis v. Greece, 19516/06, 21 February 2008, Information Note 105; Dimitras and Others v. Greece, 42837/06 et al., 3 June 2010, Information Note 131; and Grzelak v. Poland, 7710/02, 15 June 2010, Information Note 131)

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