Muslim parents in Switzerland cannot refuse to send their daughters to mixed school-run swimming lessons, Europe’s rights top court ruled on Tuesday, responding to a challenge by a Turkish-Swiss couple who argued the classes violated their beliefs.
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The European Court of Human Rights accepted that the refusal by authorities to exempt girls from the lessons interfered with their freedom of religion. But the interference, it said, was justified by the need to protect the children from social exclusion.
School plays “a special role in the process of social integration, particularly where children of foreign origin were concerned,” ruled the court, which is based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg. Swimming lessons are “not just to learn to swim, but above all to take part in that activity with all the other pupils”, it added. The case was brought by a Turkish-Swiss couple who argued that forcing their pre-pubescent daughters to attend the classes violated their faith.
The court found that the Basel authorities had tried to accommodate the parents’ beliefs by, for instance, allowing the girls to wear the full-body “burkini” swimsuit. The court also said that the fine of 1,400 Swiss francs (around 1,300 euros) imposed on the couple in 2010 after a warning was “proportionate to the aim pursued” of getting them to comply with the regulation.
The case was brought by Aziz Osmanoglu and his partner Sehabat Kocabas, whose daughters were born in 1999 and 2001. All their appeals were rejected by Swiss courts, after which they took their case to Strasbourg. The judgement passed on Tuesday is not final. The couple has three months to appeal against the decision.