World First Look

European court rules Muslim girls must attend mixed-sex swim classes

Europe's court of human rights ruled that Swiss Muslim girls must attend a mixed-sex swim class with their schoolmates.

Around 40 lifeguards of Swiss Lifesaving Society, SLRG, clebrate New Year's Eve by jumping and swimming in the Reuss river with the Kappel bridge in the background in Lucerne, Switzerland, on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016.
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Muslim girls in Switzerland will not receive exemptions from mixed-sex swim classes on the basis of religion, a European court has ruled.

The ruling comes at a time when many European nations find their contemporary customs at odds with those of conservative Muslim immigrants. In some cases, burkas have been banned from schools or even the public sector entirely, with lawmakers arguing that the attire raises safety concerns. Others have criticized such measures as anti-Muslim pushback against new citizens in an attempt to shift their way of life or discourage more Muslims from immigrating.

As many immigrants struggle to find a comfortable balance between preserving their original culture and fitting into a new one, debates on interference with religious freedom and the role of the state remain.

The case was brought by a Turkish-born couple who received fines in Switzerland for keeping their daughters out of mixed-gender, mandatory public-school swimming lessons, citing restrictions stemming from their Muslim faith. Weighing religious freedom against a need to integrate children into the nation’s “customs and mores,” the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg announced the ruling in favor of Switzerland on Tuesday.

“The children’s interest in attending swimming lessons was not just to learn to swim, but above all to take part in that activity with all the other pupils, with no exception on account of the children’s origin or their parents’ religious or philosophical convictions,” the court said in a statement regarding its decision.

A Swiss law allows parents of children who have reached puberty to pull them from the mixed-sex lessons, but this recent case did not meet that requirement. The authorities had also offered flexible arrangements to the parents, saying that the girls could wear burkinis if they chose, according to the statement.

Similar cases have arisen elsewhere in the country and in Germany, where judges have ruled that girls must attend school-sponsored swim lessons but allowed them to wear burkinis. Like in the Swiss case, a goal of protecting foreign-born children from “social exclusion” was upheld by requiring that the students participate in the co-ed curriculum.

The parents were fined nearly €1,300 for “breach of parental duty” in 2010.  While the court noted that the rules and decision affirming them constituted an “interference” with the family’s religion, it ruled that the case did not meet the bar for violating freedom of religion, and that the law would be beneficial for the girls if they complied with the special accommodations offered to them.

“The Court accordingly found that by giving precedence to the children’s obligation to follow the full school curriculum and their successful integration over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters on religious grounds, the domestic authorities had not exceeded the considerable margin of appreciation afforded to them in the present case, which concerned compulsory education,” the statement said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.