The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) yesterday held that it is not a violation of the right to freedom of religion to require Muslim girls to attend mixed gender swimming lessons (Osmanoǧlu and Kocabas v Switzerland (29086/12)). The complainants, parents of two Muslim sisters, had refused to send their daughters to compulsory mixed gender swimming lessons on the ground that their beliefs prohibited them from allowing their children to take part in swimming lessons that included both girls and boys. Swiss authorities refused to grant them an exemption from the swimming lessons.

The ECtHR noted that the refusal by the authorities had been an interference with the applicants' right to their freedom of religion under Article 9 of the ECHR. However, such interference was considered legal because it met the conditions for exemption because it had been prescribed by law, sought to fulfil a legitimate purpose (the Court observed that education and the school played an important role in the process of social integration) and was proportionate. Therefore the Court considered that the purpose behind the authorities’ actions outweighed the parents' wish and the intervention in their religious convictions.

The ECtHR emphasised that States have a wide margin of appreciation in such matters. The Court also referred to the fact that there had been a thorough process and balancing of considerations from the authorities’ side. The authorities had been accommodating and flexible by facilitating solutions and measures that reduced the extent of interference in the applicant’s rights, for example by allowing the applicant’s daughters to undress with no boys present and by allowing them to wear a burkini during the lessons.

This judgment as a number of previous judgments from the ECtHR, shows that the Court is more inclined to give the State a wider margin of appreciation and thus less likely to overrule the State's own assessment, when an intervention is carried out on the basis of a thorough process and the balancing of relevant Convention considerations. An earlier example of this with regard to freedom of religion is the case of Leyla Sahin v Turkey (44774/98). Read the verdict here (only in French) or the ECtHR English press release here.