Leirvåg and ors v. Norway
United Nations Human Rights Committee
November 3, 2004
Article 29: Aims of Education (29(1)(c): Education of the child shall be directed to the development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own).
CRC Concluding Observations (2 June 2000, ¶ 26-7) expressing concern that Norway’s new common curriculum on “Religions, Knowledge, and Ethical Education” may be discriminatory; expressing concern regarding the exemption process; recommending that Norway review the implementation of the new curriculum and consider an alternative exemption process.
Other International Provisions:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 18: Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; respect for the liberty of parents or legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
UNHRC, General Comment 22, Article 18 (Forty-eighth session, 1993): limitations on freedom of thought or on freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice are not permissible under Article 18; public school instruction on the general history of religions and ethics is permitted if given in a neutral and objective way; public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18.4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.
Education Act (1998), Section 2(4): sets out parameters for teaching of the subject “Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education”; provides for partial exemptions from regulations.
Norway had in 1997 introduced a new mandatory Christian education subject in the Norwegian school system called “Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Education” (CKREE), which required religious education in the Christian tradition and only provided for exemption from certain limited segments of the curriculum. Several Norwegian parents and their children filed a complaint with the U.N. Committee on Human Rights, challenging CKREE as incompatible with freedom of religion under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Issue and resolution:
The issue presented is whether the compulsory instruction of the CKREE subject in Norwegian schools, with only limited possibilities for exemption, violates the parents’ right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under ICCPR Article 18, and more specifically the right of parents to secure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions under ICCPR Article 18(4). The UNHCR concluded that in its present form, Norway’s CKREE curriculum, along with the system of exemptions that had been developed, breached ICCPR Article 18(4) and was incompatible with other international instruments including the CRC.
Public schools may instruct pupils in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics, and still be in compliance with ICCPR Article 18, if that education is provided in a “neutral and objective way.” (as under UNHRC General Comment 22, Article 18). If public education does include instruction in a particular religion or belief, in order to remain consistent with Article 18 it must provide for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that accommodate a parent’s or guardian’s wishes.
Norway’s mandatory Christian education program is not delivered in “neutral and objective way,” and its system of partial exemptions is insufficient to protect the parents’ liberty to ensure that the religious and moral education of their children conforms with their own convictions. The CKREE framework, with its system of exceptions, thus violates ICCPR Article 18(4) and is inconsistent with other international provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion in education, including the CRC.
Excerpts citing CRC and other relevant human rights instruments:
7.3 The Committee on the Rights of the Child in its Concluding observations on the report by Norway, adopted on 2 June 2000, also expressed concerns about the CKREE, in particular on the process of providing for exemption which it considered to be potentially discriminatory (CRC/C/15/Add.126, paragraphs 26-27).
9.10 The State party contends that religious instruction imparted in a neutral and objective way complies with other human rights standards, such as the CESCR, and the CRC. Accordingly, article 18, paragraph 1 cannot bar compulsory education which is intended to “enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, and promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups” (CESCR article 13, paragraph 1) or to develop respect for “his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own” (CRC art 29, paragraph 1(c)). The CKREE is designed to promote understanding, tolerance and respect among pupils of different backgrounds, and to develop respect and understanding for one’s own identity, the national history and values of Norway, as well as for other religions and philosophies of life.
11.1 On 4 October 2004, the State party submitted additional observations on the admissibility and merits of the communication. As to the admissibility of the communication, the State party reiterates its observations submitted earlier (27 April 2004). On the merits, the State party reiterates that the Supreme Court had carefully assessed the case and concluded that the CKREE subject and its partial exemption clause was in full compliance with international human rights; Article 18 of the Covenant does not prohibit mandatory school instruction on issues of religion and philosophies of life, provided it is carried out in a pluralistic, neutral and objective way; Both the ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child impose positive obligations on the States parties to provide education with certain social and ethical dimensions; and the parents failed to challenge the specific tuition accorded to their children.
11.6 The State party points out, with respect to the authors’ allegations that in its observations the Committee of the Rights of the Child expressed concern of “the process of providing for exemptions”, without giving the reasons for its concern. Since the adoption of the above observations (2 June 2000), the CKREE subject and its exemption process have been thoroughly evaluated and the authorities acted on concerns raised by granting exemptions upon standardized notification and by facilitating the communications between schools and homes. Finally, the State party notes that the Committee did not object to a partial exemption scheme, nor supported the authors’ claims for a full exemption.
14.2 The main issue before the Committee is whether the compulsory instruction of the CKREE subject in Norwegian schools, with only limited possibility of exemption, violates the authors’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under article 18 and more specifically the right of parents to secure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions, pursuant to article 18, paragraph 4. The scope of article 18 covers not only protection of traditional religions, but also philosophies of life, such as those held by the authors. Instruction in religion and ethics may in the Committee’s view be in compliance with article 18, if carried out under the terms expressed in the Committee’s General Comment No. 22 on article 18: “[A]rticle 18.4 permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way”, and “public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief is inconsistent with article 18, paragraph 4 unless provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents or guardians.” The Committee also recalls its Views in Hartikainen et al. v. Finland, where it concluded that instruction in a religious context should respect the convictions of parents and guardians who do not believe in any religion. It is within this legal context that the Committee will examine the claim.
- According to the Report of the Human Rights Committee to the General Assembly, Vol. I (2005), subsequent to the UNHRC’s decision finding that Norway’s legislation violated the ICCRP, Norway provided follow-up information to the Committee, and this information was designated as “satisfactory,” with additional follow-up information expected. See U.N. Report of the Human Rights Committee, Vol. I (2005), at p. 130, available at http://www.ccprcentre.org/doc/ICCPR/AR/A_60_40_vol.I_E.pdf
- A report from the Council of Europe indicates that in 2008 Norway introduced amendments to its Education Act “to respond to the concern of qualitative equality between Christianity and other religions and philosophies,” and that changes have been made in the exemption provisions. The European Court of Human Rights had considered a case similar to the Leirvag case (Folgerø and others v. Norway; see “Notes” section below), finding Norway’s Christian education program to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA), which had been heavily involved in both cases., has criticized the legislative changes as insufficient. The Council report found that “all the provisions found by the European Court to be in breach of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 have been amended and circulars concerning the application of the new legal framework issued,” but noted that “[n]onetheless, the difficulty the Court found as regards the practicability of the exemption clause appears to remain, in particular on account of the lack of a concrete distinction between knowledge and activity… . This distinction can remain thoroughly subjective and is only partially solved by the schools’ obligation to give parents more information about the content of lessons. Moreover, the scope of exemption which could in the past have been reduced by differentiated teaching, can still be narrowed by the obligation to provide for ‘adapted instruction within the scope of the curriculum’ (Section 2-3a).” Consideration of Norway’s legislative efforts by the Council is apparently ongoing. The Council report describing the legislation, the NHA’s criticism, and remaining concerns, is available at: http://www.coe.int/t/DGHL/MONITORING/EXECUTION/Reports/Current/Norway_en.pdf:
A group of seven parents had brought the underlying cases challenging the CKREE in Norwegian domestic courts; four sets of parents opted to take their case to the UNHCR (Leirvåg and ors v. Norway), and the remaining three sets of parents took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (Folgerø and others v. Norway, 15472/02, judgment of 29/06/2007 – Grand Chamber). The ECHR found that the CKREE violated Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Human Rights Convention. See http://www.iheu.org/node/2724.
CRIN supports this decision as upholding children's right to freedom of religion and to be educated in public schools that respect and nurture their diverse cultures.
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