Geneva advises teachers on religion in school

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Geneva advises teachers on religion in school
File photo: C Carlstead

As children start the new school year, the secular canton of Geneva has issued guidelines for teachers on how to deal with religious issues in the classroom.


The 30-page booklet, entitled ‘Secularism at school’, aims to address questions such as whether students may pray at school, wear religious symbols or be exempted from certain activities such as swimming classes.

Issued by Geneva’s department for education, culture and sport (DIP), the guide, which is illustrated with cartoons, stresses the canton’s guiding principle of secularism and religious neutrality “in the context of great sensitivity surrounding religious questions,” the DIP said in a statement.

“In the current context, where emotion too often overrides reason, it’s necessary to remind ourselves of the framework and principles regarding secularism at school,” said Anne Emery-Torracinta, the minister in charge of the DIP.

“Respecting secularism in school life is the best way of guaranteeing harmony in a society which must learn to practise multiculturalism without losing sight of its roots.”

The guidelines follow recent controversy in Swiss schools over religious issues.

Earlier this year two Muslim teenage boys at a school in Therwil, in the canton of Basel-Country, caused outrage across Switzerland when they refused to shake their female teacher’s hand for religious reasons.

After the school initially allowed them to be exempted from the common Swiss practice, the decision was later overruled by cantonal authorities, which said female teachers should not be discriminated against and anyone doing so would be liable for a fine of up to 5,000 francs.

And in June a Muslim father was fined 4,000 francs for refusing to allow his two teenage girls to take swimming lessons at school.

Under Geneva’s guidelines, outlined in the booklet, teachers may not wear religious symbols but the practice is tolerated among students as long as it doesn’t prevent the integration of the student or cause problems at school.

All pupils are obliged to participate in all school studies – including physical education, swimming, biology and sex education – as well as linked extracurricular activities such as school camps, and may not be exempted for religious reasons.

Students and their parents must respect equality of the sexes, says the guide.

Pupils may have limited days off for religious festivals, if outside of exam times, but prayer rooms in schools are not allowed.

The booklet underlines that the “rules apply to all and are non-negotiable”, said the DIP.

But where problems occur, the child and/or their family should be guided to change their stance, “the goal being to educate, not exclude”.

Secularism is not about forced assimilation or ignorance of religion, says the booklet, but aims to ensure “peaceful coexistence of differences, to allow each person to follow their own path calmly”.



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