In 2008, school officials in Basel, Switzerland, ordered a Muslim couple to enroll their daughters in a mandatory swimming class, despite the parents’ objections to having their girls learn alongside boys.
The officials offered the couple some accommodations: The girls, 9 and 7 at the time, could wear body-covering swimsuits, known as burkinis, during the swimming lessons, and they could undress for the class without any boys present.
But the parents refused to send their daughters to the lessons, and in 2010, the officials imposed a fine of 1,400 Swiss francs, about $1,380. The parents, Aziz Osmanoglu and Sehabat Kocabas, who have both Swiss and Turkish nationality, decided to sue.
On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Swiss officials’ decision, rejecting the parents’ argument that the Swiss authorities had violated the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, which the court enforces.
“The public interest in following the full school curriculum should prevail over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters,” the court found.
The case was the latest to pit freedom of religion against the imperative of social integration, and to raise the question of whether – and how much – a government should accommodate the religious views of Muslim citizens and residents, many of them immigrants.
The ruling could set an important precedent in other cases in which religious and secular values or norms come into conflict.