Case of Grzelak V Poland (June 2010) European Court of Human Rights

Another case at the European Court of Human Rights regarding the negative aspect of the right to freedom of conscience under Article 9 of the European Convention. The Irish state has brought about a situation where secular parents must reveal their philosophical conviction in order to access the local school for their children. They must also reveal their convictions in order to opt their children out of religious instruction and ceremony.

The Report from the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism recommends that:-

“In order to clarify the constitutional and legal rights of children and parents and to reflect changes to the Rules for National Schools, the Advisory Group recommends that the Minister for Education and Skills should make schools aware of the human rights requirements of national and international law.”

Under Article 9 of the European Convention individuals have the right not to be obliged to reveal their religious and philosophical convictions and especially while accessing an essential service such as education. In order to protect the human rights of individuals the government must bring about a situation where parents are not obliged to inform schools of their religious or philosophical convictions. They must also make schools aware of this human rights requirement.

The European Court stated in the Grzelak case that:-

“86. In democratic societies, in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, it may be necessary to place restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and religion in order to reconcile the interests of the various groups and ensure that everyone’s beliefs are respected (see Kokkinakis, cited above, § 33). The Court has frequently emphasised the State’s role as the neutral and impartial organiser of the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs, and stated that this role is conducive to public order, religious harmony and tolerance in a democratic society (see Leyla Şahin v. Turkey [GC], no. 44774/98, § 107, ECHR 2005 XI).

87. The Court reiterates that freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs comprises also a negative aspect, namely the right of individuals not to be required to reveal their faith or religious beliefs and not to be compelled to assume a stance from which it may be inferred whether or not they have such beliefs (see, Alexandridis v. Greece, no. 19516/06, § 38, ECHR 2008 …, and, mutatis mutandis, Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, no. 1448/04, § 76 in fine, ECHR 2007 XI). The Court has accepted, as noted above, that Article 9 is also a precious asset for non-believers like the third applicant in the present case. 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.”

“92. The Court takes the view that the provisions of the Ordinance which provide for a mark to be given for “religion/ethics” on school reports cannot, as such, be considered to infringe Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9 of the Convention as long as the mark constitutes neutral information on the fact that a pupil followed one of the optional courses offered at a school. However, a regulation of this kind must also respect the right of pupils not to be compelled, even indirectly, to reveal their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
93. 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.”


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