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Religious education in public school is in accordance with the Croatian Constitution

  • June 2019

According to the Constitutional Court ruling from December 2018 (publicized in January 2109), the position of religious education as an elective subject in public schools, and religious education in preschool institutions, does not contradict the constitutional provision of separation between religious communities and the state.

Religious communities in Croatia enjoy a wide range of rights, regulated by four agreements between Croatia and the Holy See (in relation to the position of the Catholic Church) and by the Law on religious communities, and by agreements signed between the government and 19 other (mainly traditional) religious communities. One of the rights enjoyed by the Catholic Church and other religious communities that have signed agreements with the Government is the right to organize religious education in public and private schools if at least 7 pupils opt for it. Though religious education is an elective subject, it becomes a compulsory subject for the pupils who have signed in for it. Exemption is possible if a written request for opting out is submitted to the school principal by the parents (in primary schools) or by both the parents and the pupils (above the age of 15, i.e. those in secondary schools) prior to the beginning of the school year. Religious education is confessional, as religious communities are in charge of the content of textbooks for the purposes of catechism teaching, and of hiring qualified teachers. Upon being granted by the religious community a special permission to teach religion, teachers are employed by schools and are paid by the ministry of Science and Education and have the same full employment rights as other teachers.

Since its introduction in 1991, the position of religious education in public schools has remained a topic of public debates. Some of the critics, who officially filed a constitutional complaint, argued that the fact that confessional religious education is a part of public education violates the constitutional provision of separation of the state and religious communities. In contrast, the Constitutional Court argued that, though the constitution opts for the equality of all religious communities before the law and for the separation of religious communities and the state, it also stipulates that religious communities are free to publicly conduct religious services, open schools, academies, and other institutions as well as welfare and charitable organizations, and to enjoy the protection and assistance of the state in their activities. Consequently, the Court concluded that the Croatian constitution does not ask for the “absolute separation of the religious communities and the state”, and that the religious education in public schools and preschool institutions, as such, does not violate the Constitutional provision. It also restates the former ECtHR ruling in respect of Croatia (Savez Crkava Riječ Života and Others v. Croatia, Application no. 7798/08) which found that, inter alia, religious education in public schools and preschool institutions is an additional right which the Croatian state has voluntarily decided to assure. It is considered an additional right that falls within the broader scope of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Though the ruling of the Constitutional Court solidifies the position of confessional education in public schools for the years to come, some challenging aspects still remain. For example, though the majority of pupils opt for religious education in primary schools (mainly the Catholic education, as Croatia is a country with an important Catholic majority) the fact is that there is no alternative subject provided for pupils not attending religious education, and this might be interpreted as discriminatory for children who are left unattended in the school premises. In secondary schools, this practice disappears, since pupils are required to choose between religious education and a subject on ethics. Discriminatory attitudes, in particular toward new religious movements and atheists, were reported in some Catholic religious instruction textbooks. Discrimination can also be found in the fact that religious communities which do not have agreement with the Government can’t enjoy the right to have religious education in schools. Finally, in recent years, some religious NGOs have started to mobilize supporters among parents to advocate for the rights of parents to have their philosophical and religious convictions respected in the provision of their children’s general education.

Further reading: Staničić, Frane (2018), "Do We Need a Revision of the Treaties with the Holy See?", Zbornik Pravnog fakulteta u Zagrebu, 68(3-4):397-429. (in Croatian)

D 17 June 2019    ASiniša Zrinščak

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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