Court backs Swiss that Muslim girls must attend swim class

AP News
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Posted: Jan 10, 2017 9:05 AM

GENEVA (AP) — A European court has rejected an appeal by a Turkish-born couple who were fined in Switzerland for keeping their daughters out of mixed-gender, mandatory public school swimming lessons for reasons linked to their Muslim faith

The European Court of Human Rights announced a summary of the ruling on Tuesday. The decision upheld a Swiss federal court ruling that education officials hadn't violated the family's rights of freedom of conscience and religion in the case in Basel dating to 2008.

The Strasbourg, France-based court acknowledged "interference" in freedom of religion, but that public schools had a "special role" in integration, particularly of children of foreign origin.

Under Basel school system rules, attending swim class is mandatory for all grade-school pupils and exemptions are possible only once they reach puberty. The girls were 7 and 9 when their parents first became aware that no exemption was allowed, according to the ruling.

The court noted that Swiss authorities had taken steps to ease the family's concerns, such as by allowing for individual, separate showers and allowing for the wearing of a "burkini," or body-covering swimwear used by some Muslim women.

The girls' mother refused that option, arguing that "the burkini didn't erase the contours" of their bodies, and the family believed that wearing one would "stigmatize" its wearer, the ruling said. The parents kept their daughters out of the swim classes.

Two years after the case emerged, education officials in Basel ordered the family to pay a total of 1,400 Swiss francs (about $1,400 today) for repeatedly violating the rules.

Sandra Sutter-Jeker, a Basel lawyer who represented the family in the case, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Such issues of compulsory public education and religious belief have prompted similar cases in neighboring Germany and Liechtenstein in recent years.