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Swiss School Board Upholds Handshake Policy, Despite Religious Objections

Education officials in Switzerland say teachers can require students to shake hands, even if the students have religious objections.

Two Muslim boys had refused to shake hands with female teachers at a public school in northern Switzerland.

The school board, or cantonal body, said that schools in Basel Country can charge parents fines of up to $5,000 if their kids do not comply with the custom.

The Swiss news website Swissinfo.ch reports:

"[The education body] acknowledged that forcing pupils to shake hands represented an intrusion into religious freedom, but since this did not involve the central tenets of Islam, this intrusion was proportionate, it judged.

"The committee said the public interest outweighed 'considerably' the private interests of the pupils.

"This public interest included equal treatment of men and women, the integration of foreigners and a well-organised school system. In addition, shaking hands was an important social gesture for one's future career, it concluded in a statement."

Two Swiss Muslim groups gave different perspectives on the issue. The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland, or ICCS, said the body had overstepped its authority, AFP reports. The wire agency adds:

"The Federation of Islamic Organisations of Switzerland (IOS), considered more moderate than the ICCS, 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."

Calls to curb Muslim immigration rose in Switzerland after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015 — "the latest evidence that anti-Islam sentiment is rising in one of Europe's most tolerant countries," The Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

In 2009, voters banned the construction of minarets — which appear on or near many mosques — despite opposition from the Swiss government, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley said.

In 2015, the Independent reported that one region of Switzerland had imposed a ban on wearing burqas in public.

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Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.