Case of European Court of Human Rights, October 31, 2019 (case PAPAGEORGIOU AND OTHERS v. GREECE)

Resolution Date:October 31, 2019

Preliminary objection joined to merits and dismissed (Article 35-1 - Exhaustion of domestic remedies);Violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 - Right to education-{general} (Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 - Respect for parents' religious convictions);Non-pecuniary damage - award (Article 41 - Non-pecuniary damage;Just satisfaction)




(Applications nos. 4762/18 and 6140/18)


Art 2 P 1 • Respect for parents’ religious convictions • Parents obliged to submit solemn declaration, with teacher’s countersignature, as to non-Orthodox Christian status of children for exemption from religious education course


31 October 2019

This judgment will become final in the circumstances set out in Article 44 § 2 of the Convention. It may be subject to editorial revision.

In the case of Papageorgiou and others v. Greece,

The European Court of Human Rights (First Section), sitting as a Chamber composed of:

Ksenija Turković, President,Linos-Alexandre Sicilianos,Aleš Pejchal,Armen Harutyunyan,Pere Pastor Vilanova,Tim Eicke,Jovan Ilievski, judges,and Renata Degener, Deputy Section Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 24 September 2019,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on that date:


  1. The case originated in two applications (nos. 4762/18 and 6140/18) against the Hellenic Republic lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by five Greek nationals (“the applicants”), whose name appear in the annexed list, on 5 and 8 January 2018 respectively.

  2. The applicants were represented by Mr V. Sotiropoulos, a lawyer practising in Athens. The Greek Government (“the Government”) were represented by their Agent’s delegates, Mr K. Georghiadis, Senior Advisor to the State Legal Council, and Mrs A. Magrippi, Legal Assistant at the State Legal Council.

  3. The applicants alleged violations of Articles 8, 9 and 14 of the Convention and of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

  4. On 26 March 2018 notice of the applications was given to the Government.

  5. On 31 May and 14 June 2018, under Article 36 § 2 of the Convention and Rule 44 § 3 of the Rules of Court, the Vice-President of the Section granted the National Secular Society, the Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Grassrootsmobilise Research Programme based at ELIAMEP leave to intervene as third parties in the proceedings.


  6. The first two applicants in application no. 4762/18 are the parents of the third applicant, a school student who at the time of the application (during the school year 2017/18) was in the third and final grade of the General High School on the small island of Milos. The first applicant in application no. 6140/18 is the mother of the second applicant, a school student who at the time of the application was in the fourth grade of the only primary school on the small island of Sifnos.

  7. The first two applicants in application no. 4762/18 and the first applicant in application no. 6140/18 never submitted, on behalf of their respective children, any application for exemption, either for the school year 2017/18 or for any of the previous school years, from the religious education course to be taught at each grade. Furthermore, they never took any legal action, by filing an application for annulment with the Supreme Administrative Court, against the circular of the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs dated 23 January 2015, which sets out the procedure for exemption from the religious education course.

  8. However, in relation to two further decisions of the Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, entitled “General and vocational high school religious education programme”, dated 13 June 2017, and “Primary and middle school religious education programme”, dated 16 June 2017, the applicants in both applications filed an application with the Supreme Administrative Court for annulment on 12 July 2017 – about two months before the start of the school year 2017/18 and during the courts’ summer recess between 1 July and 15 September. They challenged these decisions on the grounds that they did not provide for an objective, critical and pluralist religious education course that would not need the exemption procedure since it would involve all students, not because of a legal obligation, but because it would not harm their religious beliefs.

  9. In their applications, the applicants also extensively argued that the procedure for exemption from the religious education course, as established by the above-mentioned circular, was contrary to Articles 8, 9 and 14 of the Convention.

  10. On 12 and 24 July 2017 the applicants asked to have their cases examined by the Holidays Section under the urgent procedure, in accordance with Article 11 of Presidential Decree no. 18/1986, before the start of the new school year 2017/18 on 11 September 2017. However, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed the requests for lack of importance.

  11. The application for annulment was scheduled to be heard before the Third Section on 12 October 2017. The hearing was adjourned several times and rescheduled to take place on 9 November 2017, 14 December 2017, 8 February 2018, 22 March 2018, 19 April 2018, 4 May 2018, 1 June 2018 and 21 September 2018.

  12. The Government submitted that the Third Section had adjourned the hearing because it had anticipated the issuance of judgments by the Plenary on two applications for the annulment of two ministerial decisions regarding the primary, middle and high school religious education programme which had become effective as from the school year 2016/17. The applicants contended that in the decisions postponing the hearing, the Third Section had not mentioned the reason alleged by the Government and could not have done so since the other cases had involved other parties and concerned the curriculum for the school year 2016/17.

  13. The Supreme Administrative Court, sitting in plenary, published judgments no. 660/2018 (concerning the primary and middle school religious education programme for the school year 2016/17) and no. 926/2018 (concerning the high school religious education programme for the school year 2016/17) in the above-mentioned cases on 20 March 2018, following an appeal led by the Greek Orthodox metropolitan bishop of Pireus, who had challenged the implementation of the reform of religious education classes proposed in the programme. The Plenary held that the ministerial decisions were contrary to Article 4 § 1, Article 13 § 1 and Article 16 § 2 of the Constitution, Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, and Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9 of the Convention, as they deprived students abiding by the Orthodox Christian dogma of the right to be exclusively taught the dogmas, moral values and traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

  14. Following publication of the above-mentioned judgments, the applicants’ application for annulment was struck off the list of the Third Section of the Supreme Administrative Court and brought for a hearing before its Grand Chamber on 4 May 2018. The application was subsequently adjourned anew and scheduled to be heard on 21 September 2018 before the Plenary due to its importance, so that it could be heard jointly with another two applications for annulment lodged by other individuals against the same ministerial decisions as those challenged by the applicants. The other applications, brought by parents of students, a theology teacher, a diocese, a metropolitan bishop and an association, requested the annulment of the same ministerial decisions and syllabuses, but on grounds that were diametrically opposed to those relied on by the applicants. In these applications, the applicants, identifying their religious affiliation as Orthodox Christian, complained, inter alia, that the disputed new religious education programme for the school year 2017/18 sought to “transform the course from an Orthodox confessional one into a ‘religiology’ course (θρησκειολογικό)”, in breach of Articles 4 and 13 of the Constitution and the applicable relevant legislation.

  15. The Church of Greece intervened before the Supreme Administrative Court. In their intervention, the Church of Greece stated that their representatives had visited the official State committee six times during the drafting of the new religious education course. They also stated that they wanted the course to be of a confessional nature, as ruled by the Supreme Administrative Court in its judgment no. 660/2018.

  16. The relevant Articles of the Constitution read as follows:

    Article 3 § 1

    “The dominant religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church ....”

    Article 4 § 1

    “All Greeks are equal before the law.”

    Article 13 § 1

    “Freedom of conscience in religious matters is inviolable. The enjoyment of personal and political rights shall not depend on an individual’s religious beliefs.


    Article 16 § 2

    “Education constitutes a basic mission for the State and shall aim at the moral, intellectual, professional and physical training of Greeks, the development of national and religious conscience and at their formation as free and responsible citizens.”

  17. The current Law on Education (Law no. 1566/1985 – “the Education Act”) states that the course entitled “Orthodox Christian Instruction” is mandatory for all schoolchildren throughout primary and secondary education and includes the objective that students should be helped:

    “[to] develop into free, responsible, democratic citizens ... in whom is instilled faith in their homeland and the genuine elements of Orthodox Christian tradition. Freedom of their religious conscience is inviolable.”

  18. Section 22 of Law no. 344/1976 on civil status reads as follows:

    “1. A birth certificate ... shall contain:


    1. the place, time, day, month and year of birth.

    2. the sex of the infant and his or her birth order.


    3. the name, surname, nationality, religion, occupation, residence and registration details in the parents’ register ...”

  19. Parents must provide a copy of their child’s birth certificate to the school. “Religion” as a subject is compulsory in primary, middle and high school, as well as in certificates of studies, under the relevant...

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