Switzerland: Court rejects Muslim parents’ human rights objection to daughters’ compulsory mixed swimming lessons

Human rights judges have today rejected a complaint against Switzerland from Muslim parents, who objected to sending their daughters to compulsory mixed swimming lessons.

The judges declared that by refusing to exempt two Muslim pupils, the Swiss authorities had given precedence to the children’s obligation to follow the full school curriculum and had not infringed the right to freedom of religion.

In its Chamber judgment in the case of Osmanoǧlu and Kocabaş v. Switzerland (application no. 29086/12) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

no violation of Article 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights

The court found that the applicants’ right to manifest their religion was in issue and observed that the authorities’ refusal to grant them an exemption from swimming lessons had been an interference with the freedom of religion, that interference being prescribed by law and pursuing a legitimate aim (protection of foreign pupils from any form of social exclusion).

The court emphasised, however, that school played a special role in the process of social integration, particularly where children of foreign origin were concerned. It 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 court also noted that the authorities had offered the applicants very flexible arrangements to reduce the impact of the children’s attendance at mixed swimming classes on their parents’ religious convictions, such as allowing their daughters to wear a burkini.

It also noted that the procedure in the present case had been accessible and had enabled the applicants to have the merits of their application for an exemption examined.

The court accordingly found that by giving precedence to the children’s obligation to follow the full school curriculum and their successful integration over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters on religious grounds, the domestic authorities had not exceeded the considerable margin of appreciation afforded to them in the present case, which concerned compulsory education.

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