GENEVA (AFP) - Religious belief is no excuse for refusing to shake a teacher's hand, authorities in a northern Swiss region ruled on Wednesday, reversing one school's controversial decision to grant exemptions for Muslim pupils unwilling to touch the opposite sex.
Parents of pupils who refuse to shake a teacher's hand at schools in the northern Swiss canton of Basel-Country could now face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs (S$7,000), 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 arose over revelations last month that a middle school allowed two Syrian brothers, aged 14 and 15 not to shake their teachers' hands after they complained that doing so was counter to their religious beliefs if the teacher was a woman.
They argued that Islam does not permit physical contact with a person of the opposite sex, with the exception of certain immediate family members.
To avoid effectively permitting discrimination against female teachers, the school decided to exempt the boys from shaking hands with any of their teachers, regardless of sex.
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.
The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) said Basel-Country had exceeded its authority with the ruling overturning the school's decision and vowed a court battle if the measures are enforced.
Mandating physical contact between individuals amounts to "totalitarianism," the ICCS said in a statement.
The Federation of Islamic Organisations of Switzerland (IOS), considered more moderate than the ICCS, meanwhile told AFP it had no objection to the practice of handshaking in schools but regretted that authorities had sought a legal ruling to settle the issue.
"It could have been resolved more gently by involving the Federation of Muslims in Basel, which could have acted as a mediator," IOS spokesman Pascal Gemperli said in an e-mail.
He called the prospect of a 5,000-Swiss-franc fine "harsh" and warned that "it could further polarise the debate."
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 school at the centre of the dispute, which amid the uproar had turned to the cantonal authorities for guidance, said it was "relieved" at Wednesday's ruling.
"Now there is clarity on how to proceed," it said in a statement, adding that it would lift the temporary exemption in place since the school year began last autumn.
"This decision has recently been communicated to the family," it said.
The cantonal authorities stressed 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".
The public focus on the case has already landed the family in difficulty, after media revealed they were seeking to become Swiss nationals.
Cantonal authorities last month announced that naturalisation proceedings had been put on hold.
The father of the two boys, an imam based in Basel and a Syrian national, moved to Switzerland in 2001 and was granted asylum.
Basel's migration office was seeking more information about the circumstances under which the father's asylum request was approved.
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.
Switzerland's population of eight million people includes an estimated 350,000 Muslims.
Previous similar disputes have centred on Muslim parents who demanded that their daughters be exempt from swimming lessons, a case that led to the parents being fined.
Muslim families have, however, secured victories in court against schools which sought to ban the full-face veil.