Belgium: Religion in schools

In Belgium there are two types of high schools, both funded by the state. The first type is what we call community schools and in these schools you can ask to be taught any of the officially recognized religions. In Belgium we have six: Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. Non-religious philosophical organizations are also recognized. These organizations are translated in a course called ‘moral instruction’ in schools. You can always refuse to follow one of these classes if it doesn’t fit your personal religion. At the moment we are in the process of acknowledging Buddhism as well. In the other type of schools there is only one religion taught. These are our “free schools”. So you have for example schools where everyone has Islam or Catholicism classes.

There are no general rules in Belgium (the subject of education is a regional subject), but there are certain rules about religion that are implemented in the Flemish community schools. From 2009, high school pupils and teachers are not allowed to wear religious symbols anymore. It started in Antwerp, where two schools banned the wearing a headscarf because the girls who didn’t want to wear it were pressured and bullied into wearing one by the other students. This triggered protests and as a reaction all religious symbols were banned in all state schools. This includes headscarves, necklaces with a Catholic cross, a Jewish hat, … So neither teacher, cleaners, lunch ladies or students are allowed to wear them. Also in the Francophone community most schools don’t permit the headscarf.

This is one example how religion can lead to bullying and how a country can react to it. Flanders followed France with this law, who implemented the same rule in 2003. Glover, Gough, Johnson and Cartwright (2000) identified religion as one of the four main reasons why pupils discriminate. They classified it under personal, together with race.

This way of thinking is the opposite of the idea of promoting tolerance and the recognition of a diversity of values, norms and beliefs. Something various scholars claim is very important in the pluralist, multicultural society we live in today. When thinking this way, religious symbols should not be forbidden, but pupils would need to learn about the diversity around them and learn to accept them. But in reality, in stead of acceptance you can find discrimination on diverse levels, going from the personal level to the institutional level.

Are there specific rules in The United States or Denmark about wearing headscarves or more in general about all religious symbols?


Glover, D., Gough, G., Johnson, M., & Cartwright, N. (2000). Bullying in 25 secondary schools: Incidence, impact and intervention. Educational Research,42(2), 141-156.

Mason, M. (2003). Religion and schools: A human rights‐based approach.British Journal of religious education, 25(2), 117-128.


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