Swiss canton rules no handshake exemption for Muslim pupils

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From AFP via Yahoo news

Religious belief is no excuse for refusing to shake a teacher’s hand, Swiss regional authorities ruled Wednesday, reversing one school’s controversial decision to grant exemptions for Muslim pupils wary of touching the opposite sex.

Parents or guardians of pupils who refuse to shake a teacher’s hand in the northern Swiss canton of Basel-Country could now face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,000, 4,500 euros), regional education authorities ruled.

“A teacher has the right to demand a handshake,” they said in a statement.

The decision comes after a national uproar over revelations last month that a middle school allowed two brothers, aged 14 and 15 with Syrian nationality, not to shake their teachers’ hands after they complained that doing so was counter to their religious beliefs if the teacher was a woman.

That decision — made independently by the school in the northwest Therwil municipality without involvement of the canton’s authorities or local officials — triggered an outcry across Switzerland, where the tradition of students shaking their teachers’ hands as a sign of respect is deeply entrenched.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, who was among the many senior officials and public figures who weighed in on the matter, insisted on Swiss public television last month that “shaking hands is part of our culture”. Explaining Wednesday’s ruling, authorities said “the public interest concerning gender equality as well as integration of foreigners far outweighs that concerning the freedom of belief of students.”

The cantonal authorities pointed out that if the two students at the heart of the controversy once again refuse to shake hands, “the sanctions called for by law will be applied,” it said.

The public focus on the case has already landed the family in difficulty, after media revealed they were seeking to become Swiss. Cantonal authorities last month announced that naturalisation proceedings had been put on hold…On Wednesday, authorities said one member of the family, whose identity was not revealed, had received a warning over “incitement to violence”, which could have consequences for the naturalisation process.

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