GENEVA (AP) — A school board in northern Switzerland said Wednesday that two Muslim boys who have refused to shake hands with their female teachers for religious reasons can be required to do so, ruling that their parents could face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs (about $5,000) if they don't.
A public school in the northeastern Therwil municipality had sought the regional school board's advice after accepting the boys' belief that they should only willingly touch the women whom they will eventually marry. The school had temporarily exempted the teens from shaking hands with teachers.
The boys' refusal set off a debate in Switzerland, which has a tradition of handshake greetings. Like elsewhere in Europe, Switzerland has at times struggled to strike the right cultural balance amid a recent influx of Muslims and other newcomers.
"The public interest concerning the equality of men and women as well as the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the pupils' freedom of religion and belief," the school board said in a statement. "The social gesture of shaking hands is important if pupils are to be prepared for working life."
Under the decision, teachers at the school can require their students to shake hands. Refusal to comply could land the parents with a warning, a call to a meeting with school leaders, other disciplinary measures, and in the extreme, fines of up to 5,000 francs as part of standard school policies, the board said.
Sanctions would need to have "an educational purpose and be proportionate," it said.
The Central Islamic Council of Switzerland accused the authorities of "grossly overstepping their competency," saying such measures won't help integration but rather contribute to a feeling of alienation among Muslims. The council said it would take legal action against any effort to apply the sanctions, and ignore any fines.
School board spokeswoman Deborah Murith said the handshake requirement isn't uniform policy at all regional schools, but that the Therwil school had enacted it years ago.
The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland has noted that politeness is a key aspect of Islamic tradition, and that refraining from handshakes is "inappropriate" in Switzerland.
Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin.