A top administrative court in Greece has ruled that school students who follow the Greek Orthodox Christian faith are not eligible for exemptions from mandatory religious education classes, and that only individuals who identify as atheists or adhere to heterodox religions beyond the established belief system are permitted to be excused from the course.
Greece’s Council of State, the country’s apex administrative body, made the ruling in September. The council rejected applications by the Atheist Union of Greece to annul a prior decision by Greece’s Ministry of Education, according to which school students who are part of the Greek Orthodox faith are not eligible for exemptions from religious education classes, and that only atheists and believers of non-Orthodox religions can be exempt from the curriculum.
The mandatory religion curriculum, the Council of State explained, is rooted in the Greek Constitution and does not violate privacy laws or the European Convention on Human Rights.
Public education and religious education are closely connected in Greece—to the extent that the full, formal name of the Ministry of Education is the Ministry of Education, Religious Affairs, and Sports.
Article 16 of the Greek Constitution stipulates that education is a fundamental responsibility—“a basic mission”—of the state and assigns educators with the duty of fostering “national and religious consciousness.”
Consequently, all students enrolled in Greek public schools, who are part of the country’s prevailing Orthodox Christian majority, are obligated to participate in religious classes starting in the third grade and continuing throughout high school.
Greece permits exemptions from compulsory religious education for Jews, Muslims, non-Orthodox Christian denominations, as well as individuals who identify as atheists or agnostics. As reported by the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, in recent years, approximately 10,500 exemptions have been issued annually.
The Atheist Union of Greece initiated legal action in 2015, contending that the mere request for an exemption represented a breach of privacy under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, as it resulted in the documentation of each student’s religious affiliation or absence thereof.
The lawsuit asserted that the procedure also enabled school administrators to pressure students into attending the classes or take punitive measures against those who sought exemptions.
“The ministry was trying as hard as they could so that few students would get exempted and to discourage students to seek exemptions by using a variety of tricks and ministerial decisions,” Napoleon Papistas, secretary of the Atheist Union of Greece, informed Religion News Service.
Papistas explained that the wording of the exemption request mandated students, with parental consent, to affirm that they were not adherents of the Orthodox Christian faith.
According to Papistas, excessively zealous school authorities would frequently seek out students’ baptismal records and utilize their baptism certificates as reasons for denying their requests.
According to a 2017 Pew study on religion in Eastern Europe, approximately 90 percent of Greece’s population identifies as Orthodox Christian, even though only 17 percent attend church on a weekly basis.