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Key ruling by Turkey's top court on religious classes

Emre Baylan / Antalya, June 18 () - The formal name of a controversial mandatory class in Turkish schools is “religious culture and moral knowledge” but the content of the class is actually general “religious education” the Council of State has ruled, adding that it is not lawful to make it compulsory for everyone.

The Council of State’s 8th Chamber said in its ruling that “it is unlawful to make the “religious culture and moral knowledge” course compulsory for the plaintiffs in a case regarding the class who said the course did not comply with their religious and philosophical beliefs, regardless of the fact of whether the plaintiff was a member of any religion or an atheist.

The decision comes after the family of a student in the southern province of Antalya applied to the Muratpaşa District Governor’s Office in 2008 to exempt their child from the “religious culture and moral knowledge class.” This application was rejected, prompting the family to file a case at the Antalya 3rd Administrative Court, which ruled for the child to be exempt from the classes.

That decision held for three years while the child was at school, but upon an appeal by the Governor’s Office, the Council of State’s 8th Chamber reversed the local court’s judgment. The reversal was based on the claims that the textbooks prepared for the course did not prioritize any specific sect or religious order and took into consideration a “supra-religious perspective.”

Nusret Gürgöz, the family’s lawyer, said the local court in Antalya had not insisted on its own ruling when the Council of State reached a verdict. At the time, they were preparing to apply to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has criticized the classes in the past and said religious education courses should not be compulsory.

“We sent a supplementary defense to the Council of State’s 8th Chamber in accordance with the ECHR. The Council of State reversed the local court’s decision in line with the ECHR decision so that we did not have to apply to the ECHR” Gürgöz said.

In 2011, applicants Mansur Yalçın, Yüksel Polat and Hasan Kılıç, who are adherents of the Alevi faith and whose children were at secondary school at the time, complained that the content of the compulsory religion and ethics classes in schools was based exclusively on the Sunni understanding of Islam, claiming that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights Protocol No. 1 (the right to education) had been violated.
 
In its ruling dated Sept. 16, 2014, the ECHR observed that in the field of religious instruction, Turkey’s education system was still inadequately equipped to ensure respect for parents’ convictions.

“Turkey has to remedy the situation without delay, in particular by introducing a system whereby pupils could be exempted from religion and ethics classes without their parents having to disclose their own religious or philosophical convictions” stated the court.

 

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