Freedom of religion in Norway offers extensive protection to what can be taught in parochial schools. But do the statutes go too far in protecting religious freedoms to the detriment of other fundamental freedoms?
Vibeke Blaker Strand, who has studied safeguards against discrimination with respect to the practice of religion, thinks not.
“Protection against discrimination on the national level is interpreted as inapplicable to religion classes at private schools,” she says. “Freedom of religion takes priority.”
Strand has recently completed her PhD at the University of Oslo’s Department of Public and International Law on the issue.
She says that the underpinning of the current legislation explicitly states that oral expression is exempted from laws that protect people from discrimination.
Schools also have complete freedom in choosing their own textbooks, with almost no controls on their content, she asserts.
The combined result is that “existing regulations are grossly insufficient and lack a system for detection of substantial problems that can arise,” Strand says. “We urgently need to consider what these schools can be allowed to do and to pass appropriate legislation.”
A special responsibility
There were a total of 3000 primary schools in Norway in 2011, of which just 172 were private. These schools had 16,684 pupils out of the country’s 614,374 elementary school children. Most of the private schools are Steiner or Waldorf schools, or Christian schools.
Despite the relatively small number of students involved, Strand believes that international human rights conventions give the Government a special responsibility for ensuring that pupils in religious schools are protected from teaching that contains discriminatory content.
“The state is obliged to have regulations ensuring that children aren’t being discriminated against in their education,” she argues. “Freedom of expression in religious teachings also provides a wide-open door for the dissemination of discriminatory attitudes. Under current legislation no one can be denied the right to start a religious school on the basis of the choice of religion.”
Lots of leeway
Under existing Norwegian laws, Strand says, the rights to freedom of education and freedom of religion could cause problems in three distinct areas: gender discrimination, protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and protection against discrimination on the basis of religion or philosophy of life.
The problem is that in the context of religion, safeguards against discrimination do not apply to orally expressed statements, so that no limits have been set regarding remarks that have a religious foundation and are offensive to homosexuals or single mothers, as two examples, Strand says.
“Religious teachings or statements could assert that these kinds of people should be looked down on, or that women are subordinate to men, ” she said. “An expression isn’t viewed as illegal until it crosses the lines set by § 135 in the Penal Codes, and that provides a lot of leeway.”
One example concerns teaching about homosexuality, she says. “It’s been discussed whether the Penal Codes can be used to hinder teaching that homosexuality should be punished by death,” Strand says.
“This shows just how extreme a statement can be before the law could possibly be invoked. It’s easy to envision a wide range of expressions that would be offensive or discriminatory with regard to homosexuals or other groups, which are not strictly illegal, but that would be alarming if they were taught in the classroom.”
Different legal interpretations
The Ministry of Education and Research disagrees with Strand’s assessment. Ministry officials say the claim that there are no limits regarding the content of religious instruction at private schools is misleading.
Instead, they say, the teaching at private schools is regulated by Norway’s Private Education Act, which states that that private schools must provide education in accordance with a curriculum which is approved of by the Ministry.
“This sets limits and give directions as regards what can be and what must be part of the curriculum, and which textbooks may be used. The teaching and education must conform to an accepted curriculum,” says Department Director Ann Helen Elgsæther, from the Ministry’s Department of Education and Training.
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Photo 1: ACE – “Accelerated Christian Education” stirred controversy i Norway. (Photo: Colourbox)
Photo 2: Vibeke Blaker Strand