STRASBOURG, France (CN) – The Greek government cannot require parents to declare they are not Orthodox Christians to exempt their children from religious studies, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday.
“The current system of exemption of children from the religious education course is capable of placing an undue burden on parents with a risk of exposure of sensitive aspects of their private life,” the seven-judge panel unanimously ruled.
The case involves five Greek nationals – Petros Papageorgiou and Ekaterini Berdologlou with their daughter, Maria Rafaella Papageorgiou, along with Rodopi Anastasiadou and her daughter Smaragda Raviolou. The families live on the small Greek islands of Milos and Sifnos, respectively.
Under Greek law, children in public schools are required to attend religious classes, unless their parents sign a declaration that the family is not Orthodox Christian, which would have to be verified as accurate by the school principal.
Both families wanted their children to be exempt from religious studies but did not feel that they should have to reveal their beliefs.
They requested an exemption from the process, which was dismissed by Greek courts for a “lack of importance,” according to court records.
The parents filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights last year. The Strasbourg-based court was created by the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights and hears cases on political freedom and human rights.
The parents argued the religious studies exemption process violated their daughters’ right to education and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under the convention.
The rights court agreed Thursday, finding that the process was intrusive and risked exposing sensitive aspects of the students’ private lives, “especially if they live in a small and religiously compact society, as is the case with the islands of Sifnos and Milos, where the risk of stigmatization is much higher than in big cities.”
If the parents were Orthodox Christians, but simply wanted their children to abstain from religious instruction at school, they would risk prosecution for falsely declaring they were not.
The Greek government was ordered to pay 8,000 euros, or $8,900, in compensation to both families as well as legal costs.