The European Court of Human Rights, Secular Education and Public Schooling

James Arthur, Michael J. Holdsworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Since 9/11 the European Court of Human Rights (the European Court) has raised anew the question of the relationship between religion and public education. In its reasoning, the European Court has had to consider competing normative accounts of the secular, either to accept or deny claims to religious liberty within Europe's public education system. This article argues that the trajectory on which the term ‘secularism’ had been used by the European Court pointed increasingly towards secular fundamentalism. This study is located at the cutting edge of religion, education and the law and builds on previous work in the field (Arthur, 1998, 2008). It examines, through extensive research of legal cases, the most important developments of the usage of secular and secular education in modern discourse and explores the background to these concepts. Unless otherwise stated, religion in this article shall refer to the Christian tradition because Christianity has been the historical context for the development of the concept of ‘secular’ in Europe. The paper outlines three models of secular education before moving on to scrutinise how the European Court has understood and evaluated various legal cases before it on the interaction between secular States, public education and notions of religious symbolism and influence. The paper will discuss the significance of the European Court's reasoning and decisions for public education within a secular State context and offer some conclusions on the implications of these decisions. It examines the legal principles that underpin the European Court's supervision of the State's role in the provision of education. It focuses on the chimeric goal of neutrality and highlights the risks attached to the use of an ideological conception of secularism that could lead potentially to the complete removal of the religious as a vital cultural and intellectual dimension of public education.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-149
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Studies
Issue number2
Early online date8 Mar 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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