GENEVA - Religious belief is no excuse for refusing to shake a teacher's hand, Swiss regional authorities ruled Wednesday, reversing one school's controversial decision to grant exemptions for Muslim pupils wary of touching the opposite sex.
Parents or guardians of pupils who refuse to shake a teacher's hand in the northern Swiss canton of Basel-Country could now face fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs ($5,000, 4,500 euros), 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 over revelations last month that a middle school allowed two brothers, aged 14 and 15 with Syrian nationality, 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.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, who was among the many senior officials and public figures who weighed in on the matter, insisted on Swiss public television last month that "shaking hands is part of our culture".
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, 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 school began last autumn.
"This decision has recently been communicated to the family," it said.
The cantonal authorities pointed out 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," it said.
The public focus on the case has already landed the family in difficulty, after media revealed they were seeking to become Swiss.
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.