The Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools

In 2007 the OSCE published the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools. The principles were prepared by an advisory council of experts on freedom of religion and belief.

These Principles focus solely on the educational approach that seeks to provide teaching about different religions and beliefs, as distinct from instruction in a specific religion or belief.

This is a link to the full document, which you should read for full context.

Here are some selected extracts that reflect some of the key principles, from the perspective of Atheist Ireland and other advocates for State-funded secular non-denominational education based on human rights law.

From the Recommendations

Knowledge about religions and beliefs is an essential part of a quality education. It is required to understand much of history, literature, and art, and can be helpful in broadening one’s cultural horizons and in deepening one’s insight into the complexities of past and present. (p14)

Teaching about religions and beliefs must be provided in ways that are fair, accurate and based on sound scholarship. Students should learn about religions and beliefs in an environment respectful of human rights, fundamental freedoms and civic values. (p 16)

Aim and Scope

The starting point is the understanding that teaching about religions and beliefs is not devotionally and denominationally oriented. It strives for student awareness of religions and beliefs, but does not press for student acceptance of any of them; it sponsors study about religions and beliefs, not their practice; it may expose students to a diversity of religious and non-religious views, but does not impose any particular view; it educates about religions and beliefs without promoting or denigrating any of them; it informs students about various religions and beliefs, it does not seek to conform or convert students to any particular religion or belief. Study about religions and beliefs should be based on sound scholarship, which is an essential precondition for giving students both a fair and deeper understanding of the various faith traditions. (p 21)

The Human Rights Framework

In what has now become recognized as a landmark decision of general application, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that: freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’… It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, skeptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. (p30)

What is a “religion or belief” for these purposes? There is no generally agreed legal definition of a religion or of a belief, but it is accepted that these are broad concepts, embracing not only traditional and long-established religions found in the world today but also less well known and less well understood systems of belief. Nor is a form of belief excluded from the scope of protection because it is not “religious” in nature: the protection offered embraces both religious and non-religious systems of belief in equal measure, without according a priority to any. (p 30)

As the UN Human Rights Committee has noted, the limitation clause of Article of the ICCPR, which protects freedom of religion or belief, is to be strictly interpreted: restrictions are not allowed on grounds not specified there, even if they would be allowed as restrictions to other rights protected in the Covenant, such as national security. Limitations may be applied only for those purposes for which they are prescribed and must be directly related and proportionate to the specific need on which they are predicated. Restrictions may not be imposed for discriminatory purposes or applied in a discriminatory manner. (p 31)

Legal Issues to Consider

Regardless of the particular model of church-state relations within a country, the state has important responsibilities in the field of education and, in exercising these, it has a duty to act in a neutral and impartial fashion where matters of religion and belief are concerned — a duty that is “incompatible with any power on the state’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs,” and thus should not take a stand on the truth or falsity of any form of religion or belief. (p 33)

The State

UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 22 concludes that the freedom of religion or belief “permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way.” Moving beyond this, the General Comment acknowledges that it is also permissible for public schools to be involved in religious instruction, noting that it would be consistent with human rights commitments to do so, insofar as “provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians. (p 33)

Within this framework, educational authorities generally have broad discretion in designing, selecting, and implementing curriculum decisions in their countries. This does not, however, authorize breach of the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief or other fundamental rights. While international norms do not rule out various forms of co-operation with religions and belief systems, they do require “neutrality and impartiality” in the sense of ensuring the tolerance that is vital to pluralism, and in the sense of protecting freedom of religion or belief for all individuals and groups on an equal basis. (p 34)

The Parent or Legal Guardian

Article of the Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights provides that: No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. (p 34)

This does not mean that the state is bound to provide a system of education that accords with parental beliefs, but it does mean that parents can object to the nature and content of the education and teaching given to their children where religious instruction is predicated upon, is intended to or has the effect of projecting the truth (or falsity) of a particular set of beliefs. In consequence, parents must have the right to withdraw their children from such forms of teaching. (p 35)

A different and more complex issue arises when parents object to educational programmes that are aimed at teaching about religions and beliefs from what courts have described as a “neutral” and “objective” perspective, such as the ones to which these Guiding Principles are addressed. Although the UN Human Rights Committee considers that these programmes are compatible with Article (), the question of whether opt-out rights are required in such cases demands a more detailed analysis, which is provided in Chapter V below. (p 35)

The Child

The state has the same obligation to maintain a posture of neutrality and cultivation of toleration and respect in relation to children that it has in relation to adults, and should not be implicated in efforts to coerce the conscience of anyone. In practice, one can expect that the rights enjoyed by the parents regarding the education of their children in accordance with their religious or philosophical convictions will transfer to the children themselves in a fashion commensurate with their evolving capacities. (p 36)

The Teacher

It is axiomatic that when teaching about religions and beliefs — or, indeed, when teaching about any subject — teachers must approach their task in a balanced and professional fashion, and may not exploit their position as teachers to influence the beliefs of their pupils. (p 37)

Guiding Principles for Preparing Curricula

Teaching about religions and beliefs should be sensitive, balanced, inclusive, non-doctrinal, impartial, and based on human rights principles relating to freedom of religion or belief. This implies that considerations relating to the freedom of religion or belief should pervade any curricula developed for teaching about religions and beliefs. (p 40)

It is expected that curricula will adhere to recognized professional standards. This implies that, among other things, the information contained in curricula is based on reason, is accurate, bias-free, up to date, and does not over-simplify complex issues. It also implies that curricula are age appropriate so that they are accessible to students. (p 41)

Learning Outcomes

Whether one elects to use a more teacher-centred or student-centred approach to teaching about religions and beliefs, one would expect the following learning outcomes:

  • attitudes of tolerance and respect for the right of individuals to adhere to a particular religion or belief system. This includes the right not to believe in any religious or belief system
  • an ability to connect issues relating to religions and beliefs to wider human right issues (such as freedom of religion and freedom of expression) and the promotion of peace (i.e. the capacity of religions and beliefs for solving and preventing conflicts); (p 48)

Structure of Curricula

A balanced and impartial description of religions and belief systems and fair and sensitive representation of religious groups and individuals are vital. The use of reliable source materials, including interpretations by adherents of given religions or belief systems, is highly important. (p 51)

Framework for Teacher Preparation

Due to the specific challenges associated with teaching about religions and beliefs and the potential for exclusion and conflict, any basic teacher preparation should be framed in democratic and human rights principles, as recommended throughout this document. Other considerations are of course important, such as national curriculum standards and demands, the place of religions and beliefs in society and in the education system, and the openness of the education system to change. But a human rights framework is the best guarantee for the development of a fair and balanced approach to teaching about religions and beliefs. (p 53)

With the curriculum framework in mind from the previous chapter, present and future teachers should ideally:

  • be capable of teaching about religions and beliefs within a human rights and critical thinking framework. Critical thinking implies that students can be critical of each other’s views and opinions, yet respectful of each student’s right to adhere to a belief system of his or her choice;
  • know how to create a safe learning environment where all students feel respected and comfortable expressing their opinions and beliefs, and where critical thinking does not lead to personal criticism of certain students due to their religious or non-religious beliefs or opinions; (p 58-59)

An individual’s personal religious (or non-religious) beliefs cannot be sufficient reason to exclude that person from teaching about religions and beliefs. The most important considerations in this regard relate to professional expertise, as well as to basic attitudes towards or commitment to human rights in general and freedom of religion or belief in particular, rather than religious affiliation or conviction. (p 59)

Adaptation for Conscientious Claims

As noted in Chapter II, in educational as in other contexts, freedom of religion or belief may be restricted only when the limitations in question have been “prescribed by law” and where they are strictly “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Moreover, such limitations must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued, and call for a strict interpretation, in parallel with the extensive interpretation required by the rights protected. (p 65)

State Neutrality and Opt-Out Rights

Under international standards, states have considerable latitude with respect to providing religious education but may not seek to indoctrinate pupils in a particular worldview through the educational system against the wishes of the pupils’ parents. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that: the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded.

The state may satisfy this duty of neutrality either by designing a curriculum that is itself sufficiently impartial and balanced, or, in those instances in which the state provides instruction in a particular religion or belief, by granting rights to opt out on the ground of conscientious objection. This right must be realizable in practice, and not a mere theoretical possibility. Moreover, the requisite neutrality would be compromised if pupils were subjected to any disadvantage, discrimination or stigma on account of the exercise of this right to be exempted from such classes, or elements of classes. (p 68-69)

Whenever states provide for the teachings of religions or beliefs they are required to allow those who object to participating in this instruction on a conscientious basis to be exempted from it. As noted in Chapter II, the UN Human Rights Committee has affirmed that public education that includes instruction in a particular religion or belief can be consistent with international human rights law on the condition that “provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.” (p 69)

This requirement can be met either by exempting individual students from a course requirement, or by making the course itself optional. Where teaching about religions or beliefs is involved, the situation is more complex. Such teaching, when provided in an appropriate manner, is permissible under international human rights instruments, even when it is compulsory. The UN Human Rights Committee has interpreted Article of ICCPR to permit “public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way.” Even strongly separationist jurisdictions such as the United States allow such instruction, so long as the relevant teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” (p 69)

Structuring Opt-Out Arrangements

Once the decision is made that an opt-out is the adequate way to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief for a particular pupil, consideration needs to be given as to how the opt-out should be structured. An approach needs to be found that does not stigmatize or discriminate against the student. For example, an opt-out that sends pupils to the same room that others are sent to as a punishment sends the wrong signal. On the contrary, allowing the pupil to be doing something meaningful and productive while opting out would be a positive alternative. Care should be taken to avoid having the fact that the pupil is not participating become a basis for exclusionary or discriminatory behaviour by other students. It may be very difficult to avoid subtle and not-so-subtle
forms of discrimination that fl ow from being been branded as “different.” (p 73)

Neutrality Towards Religion or Belief

Neutrality towards religion or belief means that the state may not be hostile toward religions or beliefs and must maintain an objective stance. However, objectivity sometimes requires raising issues about the negative role that members of religious or belief communities may have played at certain moments in history. The challenge here is to develop critical awareness, and to open possibilities for identifying and discussing certain problematic aspects of religion or belief, while adopting a neutral perspective based upon objective and well-confirmed data, and avoiding any endeavour to influence the religious or belief choices of students. ( p 73)

Implicit Teaching About Religion and Beliefs

While many examples could be given, issues concerning religious symbols, religious attire and religious holidays stand out. These are complicated issues, which deserve a more detailed examination and which are beyond the scope of the present document… For example, teachers can often take advantage of holiday periods to teach about religions in culturally sensitive ways. They need to be careful to make the distinction between teaching about the holiday, and actually celebrating the holiday, or using it as an opportunity to proselytize or otherwise impose their personal beliefs. (p 74)


The Principles focus solely on the educational approach that seeks to provide teaching about different religions and beliefs, as distinct from instruction in a specific religion or belief.

These are only selected extracts. This is a link to the full document, which you should read for full context.

The Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools

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