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Freedom of religion at school

Deputy Ombudsman (AOA) Pasi Pölönen has handed down a decision on complaints concerning freedom of religion in schools. It was the first time that the Ombudsman had been asked to evaluate how religious freedom is implemented in instruction in classes with an emphasis on music and in their performances. It is also the first time that the Deputy Ombudsman considered how children's own freedom of religion is implemented in schools.

Two complaints (1417/2019 and 1609/2019) involved the implementation of freedom of religion in teaching in basic education classes that focus on music. In the view of the complainant, using spiritual music in teaching and holding performances in churches violate religious freedom. The first complaint also involved the holding of an information event about Lutheran confirmation class during a school recess. The second complaint also concerned a cooperation agreement with a congregation. The third complaint (3017/2019) was about a day of events organised by a church parish. All of the complaints were initiated by the secularist organisation Uskonnottomat Suomessa ry.

In the cases involving teaching and performing music AOA Pölönen issued an opinion for guidance. The actions by the schools or cities were not considered unlawful, but the AOA emphasised that pupils must not be compelled to sing hymns if this is against their religious conviction. An item in the cooperative agreement between schools and congregations, in which the children's own opinions concerning attendance in religious events were expressly bypassed, was also problematic. An error in the organising of the event occurred already when it was left unclear if the nature of the event involved the teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran religion or if it was a religious event. The AOA also urged the further development of practices involving the dissemination of information, and cooperation between the home and school in order to advance the implementation of freedom of religion and conscience as both fundamental, and human rights.

In the reasoning of the decisions the AOA generally discusses at length decisions and opinions of international courts and other investigative and supervisory bodies of human rights agreements, as well as judicial review decisions by the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Chancellor of Justice.

Decisions 1417/2019, 1609/2019, and 3017/2019 by Deputy Ombudsman Pasi Pölönen have been published in full (in Finnish) on the website of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, www.oikeusasiamies.fi.

Further information is available from Senior Legal Advisor Kristiina Kouros, tel. +358 9 432 3396.