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Local News Summary of January, 11th

  • Religious freedom not violated by compulsory swimming classes
  • Basel’s government wants to report on tenant protection initiatives

Religious freedom not violated by compulsory swimming classes

 Swiss authorities did not violate religious freedom when they declared mixed-sex swimming classes should be compulsory for two Muslim girls, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled.

 The deicision, announced on Tuesday, follows a long-standing case concerning a family living in Basel. In 2008, the parents of two girls, aged seven and nine, refused to send them to compulsory mixed swimming lessons on the grounds that "their beliefs prohibited them from allowing their children to take part."

Education officials held talks with the parents, who have both Swiss and Turkish citizenship, and explained that exemptions were only available for girls who had reached the age of puberty - which neither girl had reached at the time.

 In July 2010, the Department of Education fined them 1,400 Swiss francs - 700 francs per daughter - for "acting in breach of their parental duty".


Jurisdiction changed in 2008

 The couple declared the fine "illegal" and declared that such treatment represented a voilation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the right to freedom of religion.

A year later, they lost an appeal at the administration court of the canton of Basel-Stadt and took their case to the Federal Court.

In March 2012, the Federal Court ruled that although the parents' adherance to their belief was protected by freedom of religion, the obligatory swimming classes did not touch the core issue of this basic human right.

The court stated that there was no reason to modify the jurisdiction, which had been changed in October 2008 because of this case. According to this change, the Federal Court had determined that the Swiss multicultural school system should aim to include children from all cultures in the social frameworks applying to the country.

The court ruled it was "a prerequisite to participating in later economic and cultural life, to guarantee equal opportunity, and to secure social peace".


Integration through school 

The Federal Court furthermore declared in its published verdict that school played a central role in social integration and that, therefore, pupils have to attend all compulsory classes.

As a countermeasure, schools must be neutral and secular, the court ruled. Within the frame of the importance of compulsory classes, a school "should not allow a special rule for all personal wishes".

The couple took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which on Tuesday declared that the integration of the children into Swiss society was of upmost importance and agreed with the Federal Government ruling.

The court ruled that the Basel authorities had not violated the parents right to freedom of religion by insisting their children attend compulsory lessons. However, it accepted that the canton's refusal to exempt the girls had "constituted an interference with their freedom of religion".

This interference was however justified by the need to protect the children from social exclusion, the ECHR said.

The statement added that school "played a special role in the process of integration, particularly where children of foreign origin were concerned."

According to the ECHR, swimming classes are not merely held for children to learn how to swim but it was "above all" that they take part in that activity along with other pupils."

Furthermore, the court added that the school had granting permisson for the girls to wear burkinis.


Strict beliefs

The parents believed that their right to freedom of religion, as stated in Article 9, was enough to grant an exemption for their two daughters to attend mixed-sex swimming classes.

They therefore did not feel obliged to send their children to these classes. They denied they had violated their obligation as parents, and declared that the fine had been illegal.

 The parents emphasised that they commit to a strict Muslim belief, which forbids swimming classes involving both boys and girls.

 While the Quran demands the covering of the female body from puberty, an Islam-oriented idea of shame forbids any mixed-sex swimming classes.


Basel-Stadt happy about verdict

 The canton of Basel-Stadt is "satisfied" with the verdict of the ECHR. Following the verdict, Basel’s head of education, Christoph Eymann, said that Basel-Stadt regards school as a “bracket around the entire population” and that the canton had a "diligent attitude to children from all religious backgrounds".

Mr Eymann said he was also pleased that the ECHR had mentioned that an alternative option of wearing burkinis had been offered for the two children. He said that such discussions are only made in individual cases. (Procedure number 29086/12).


Basel’s government wants to report on tenant protection initiatives

Basel’s government will not present the three popular initiatives launched by the cantonal tenants’ association in September last year directly to the sovereign.

Instead, the Grand Council is to hand over the details of the initiatives in the form of a report.

The parliament should declare two of the three initiatives legally admissible, the government said on Tuesday. However, the Grand Council is expected to compliment the initiative “Ja zu bezahlbaren Mietgerichtsverfahren” (Yes to affordable rental court cases) with two additions, which the government sees as “indispensable”.

The government thus aims to put down the popular demand in another law than the initiators declared. Furthermore, it suggests a transitory provision to satisfy legal security.

 The government also plans to only partially accept the “Wohnschutzinitiative” (Housing protection initiative), which is aimed to change the constitution to include total renovations based on returns. The text of the initiative has to be modified because it suggests that the canton can be legislatively active in the area of dismissal protection – which is not the case.

Finally, the government wants to accept the “Neumieten-Initiative” (new tenants initiative) without any modifications and in full. This initiative demands the introduction of an obligatory form of initial rent.

The tenants’ association (MV) wants to fight massive price increases charged to tenants in this way. The government aims to report on the experience in cantons where the obligatory form already applies.