Muslim girls in Switzerland should not be exempt from mixed-sex school swimming lessons, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a landmark case.
In a judgment handed down on Tuesday, a panel of judges in Strasbourg unanimously agreed to throw out a case brought by a Muslim couple in Basel, Switzerland, who refused to let their two daughters attend compulsory school swimming lessons with boys.
The ruling agreed with Swiss law that children had to follow the school curriculum even if it interfered with the freedom of religion, as it was "pursuing a
legitimate aim" in protecting "foreign pupils from any form of social exclusion".
Parents Aziz Osmanoglu and Sehabat Kocabas, who are Swiss-Turkish, refused seven years ago to send their daughters to mixed swimming lessons on the grounds “that their beliefs prohibited them from allowing their children to take part”.
In a long-running case, the local Basel authorities at the time said the parents risked a maximum fine of 1,000 Swiss francs (CHF) each if their daughters did not attend the compulsory lessons.
Authorities said the girls had not yet reached the age of puberty and could not claim exemption under the legislation, according to court documents.
Even though the school said the couple's daughters could wear a burkini or a full-length swimsuit during the swimming lessons, the girls continued not to attend the swimming lessons.
Later in July 2010 the education authorities ordered Osmanoglu and Kocabas to pay a fine of CHF350, or €1,292, per parent and per child for acting in breach of their "parental duty".
In 2012, Switzerland's highest court in Lausanne ruled attending mixed-gender swimming lessons was not a violation on religious freedom.
The application was eventually taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on 23 April 2012 when the parents alleged the requirement to send their daughters to mixed swimming lessons was contrary to their religious convictions.
They appealed to Article 9 of the international treaty the European Convention of Human Rights – the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Yet judges Tuesday threw out the case, finding there had been no violation of freedom of religion, and that Switzerland’s right to facilitate “successful social integration according to local customs and mores” took precedence over the parents’ wish to refuse participation.
Exemptions, the court said, are "justified only in very exceptional circumstances".
"The Court observed that school played a special role in the process of social integration, and one that was all the more decisive where pupils of foreign origin were concerned," the statement read.
The judgment however is not final and may be referred to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber by any party’s request over the next three months.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) said they were not surprised by the decision.
"Without having read the court's opinion, we still can say that this decision is according to what we have expected," they said. "The ICCS always estimated the chances of the process to be won by the affected families as low.
"But still it is the ICCS's opinion that it neither leads anywhere nor is according to a liberal political order if people are forced to join a swimming class against their conscience and religious conviction."
Swimming lessons are compulsory in schools in Basel and many other places in Switzerland. But the decision comes amid continuing national debate over the role of Islam in society and education in the European country.
Last year authorities in Basel denied two Muslim teens a passport because they refused to participate in swimming lessons and residential camps, saying they were not meeting the requirements of the education system, according to The Local, the Swiss news website.
In another case, last year a father in St Gallen was fined 4,000 francs for refusing to send his daughters to school swimming lessons.
BuzzFeed News has contacted lawyers acting on behalf of the family.