Maciej Bulanda

Grzelak v Poland

The failure to offer ethics classes in Polish public schools, resulting in absence of a grade for this subject in the student’s transcript, constitutes unlawful discrimination on religious grounds, the European Court of Human Rights has held.

On 15 June 2010, Section IV of the European Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued a judgment in the case Grzelak v Poland. The plaintiff, Mateusz Grzelak, together with his parents, accused the Polish state of discrimination on religious grounds under Art. 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion) and Art. 9 (guaranteeing “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”).

The case involved the blank spot in Mateusz Grzelak’s report card for elementary and middle school under the rubric “religion/ethics.” He refused to enrol in “religion” classes (i.e. instruction in Roman Catholic doctrine), but the schools Grzelak attended did not offer an ethics course as an alternative, thus preventing him from obtaining a grade in that subject.

In its ruling, the court held that the gap in the plaintiff’s record stigmatised him compared to other students, who obtained grades under this rubric for classes in religion, and thus there was a violation of Art. 14 of the convention.

According to an announcement by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The court did not question the system of organising religion and ethics classes in Polish schools… or the ability to include the grade in these subjects in the student’s grade point average.” Nonetheless, the court cited a ruling by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal from December 2009, which in the opinion of the Court of Human Rights ignored the discrimination against students who were non-believers or members of other faiths. The Polish court found at that time that failure to provide ethics classes, leaving a blank spot in the student’s transcript, is discrimination, but the Constitutional Tribunal could not consider it because its task is to consider law and not practice.

The parties have until 15 September 2010 to file an appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber.