Religion and culture in the context of religious freedom in education

Religion and culture in the context of religious freedom in education

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about cultural events inspired by various religious traditions and their presence in public space. Due to the majority of the Roman Catholic religion in Poland, these are mainly associated with Christmas representations (so called „nativity plays”), the organization of Christmas meetings and the temporary presence of symbols of these important Christian holidays, such as crèches showing the moment of the birth of Christ. Does this presence matter for the cultivation of religious freedom? Why, however, there are voices that question their legitimacy and cultural role, accusing them of alleged indoctrination, although the same people often - as social media shows - support iconoclastic theatrical performances that undermine the dignity of believers and their values?

This disproportion is becoming more and more visible and many people report to the Information and Consultation Center run by the Laboratory of Religious Freedom, looking for information and interventions due to restrictions on the freedom to express their faith and religious views, especially in schools and kindergartens, during the Christmas period. This often happens under pressure from organizations - foundations or associations that try to eliminate the nativity play or crèches, treating them as an ideological factor, and when one of the children doesn’t want to participate in the event, they demand that the entire play be removed? Is that right?

In order to clarify these issues, it’s worth recalling that the school and the upbringing process carried out there is a „support” (not „replace”) for parents who have the right to raise their children based on their values, and the role of the school is to help them in this. The upbringing itself is not free from axiology, it’s based on specific values, which are also defined in the educational law, which explicitly talks about upbringing based on universal Christian values. These are values which, without excluding anyone, constitute the basis of civilization and, through their emphasis on the inviolable dignity of person, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin, defend the rights of all students. The presence of religion in school, legally guaranteed and being an expression of a positive understanding of freedom as freedom to profess religion, is realized not only in the lesson called „religion”, but this axiological perspective can be passed on in the entire educational system, in other subjects and during various educational activities1.

For this reason, the mere presence of information about religion, symbols and cultural expressions is not an indoctrination, but a presentation of an essential horizon on which and thanks to which many social and historical phenomena acquire their full meaning. Therefore, organizing nativity plays and placing crèches in schools, hospitals or offices, information about holidays of followers of other religions attending school, is a better move than the aim of eliminating everything that’s religious, resulting from the ideological premises of secularism. It teaches tolerance and respect for others: not at the cost of removing an important dimension of human life, which is ones religiosity, shaped parallel to intellectual competences, but precisely through this expression. Marginalizing and obstructing the realization of this religious freedom right by preventing student from Christmas meeting in class or singing Christmas carols is, in fact, a violation of religious freedom and an educational disadvantage, that takes from children an important cultural roots.

Failure to know important religious truths or the prohibition of displaying religious symbols, which after all have become part of Polish culture, a significant justification for many historical events that stem directly from religious motivation, is nothing other than impoverishment and limitation of the development of national culture and personal expression. Fortunately, these are not large numbers on a national scale, but puzzling is, that often where there are attempts to eliminate a cultural tradition resulting, for example, from Christianity, at the same time initiatives are introduced in schools that promote the gender ideology in the form of controversial campaigns that invade in terms of gender identity, which is supervised by parents, and such initiatives take place without their consent.

The school should prepare a young person for many situations, including those that will be related to ethical and religious choices, therefore it’s imperative to strengthen the presence of the religious dimension, conducive to integral education and upbringing, and not to marginalize it. After all, it’s all about the common good, that is, creating conditions for the growth of all students, including religious ones. Therefore, the appointment of religion lessons for the last hours of the school schedule results from ideological prejudices and treating religion at school as an inferior subject2, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights suggests that if a country recognizes the presence of religion at school, it should ensure access to this education3. So, the answer to the question of how to present religious content leads us to wider social issues and care for integral education, which is based on respect for man and his religious exploration.

Many contemporary thinkers, especially within the so-called post-secular trend, points out that religion and culture cannot be separated in European culture4. It’s like a shirt that stuck very tightly to the body. If we tear it off, then - following this metaphor – there’s a risk that we will tear out essential parts of the body. It will be not so much an expression of freedom as depriving it, because - to refer to the examples cited - looking for the consensus of everyone in order to be able to conduct a nativity play at school, which are not a profession of faith, but getting to know it and bringing it closer (non-believers have an opportunity to get to know the beliefs of their peers believers), misses the point, because such initiatives foster such an important idea of tolerance and respect. It is worth teaching these two values not by excluding, but by showing religious content. This ensures that there will be no future attempts to force and eliminate or discriminate against people on the basis of their religiosity (or lack thereof). Thus, it contributes to building a culture of encounter and openness, which is a measure of a mature civilization.

It is worth remembering when someone wants to deprive and cut off the cultural and axiological roots of children, not allowing or ridiculing holidays initiatives in our schools. The case concerns religious freedom, which allows freedom to be manifested, not deprived of it.

Agnieszka Brzezińska Ph.D

Chopin Centre in Szafarnia


Jabłoński P., Kaczor J., Pichlak M. (eds.), Prawo i polityka w sferze publicznej: Perspektywa wewnętrzna, Digital Library of University of Wroclaw, Wrocław 2018.

Mazanka P., Źródła sekularyzacji i sekularyzmu w kulturze europejskiej, UKSW Publisher, Warszawa 2003.

Roszak P., Horvat S., Wółkowski J., Microaggressions and Discriminatory Behaviour Towards Religious Education Teachers in Polish Schools, „British Journal of Religious Education” 43 (2021), 3, p. 337-348.

Sobczyk P., Wolność sumienia i religii w Konstytucji Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej - postulaty Kościoła katolickiego, „Prawo Kanoniczne” 3-4 (2008), p. 371-383.

1 P. Sobczyk, Wolność sumienia i religii w Konstytucji Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej - postulaty Kościoła katolickiego, „Prawo Kanoniczne” 3-4 (2008), p. 371-383.

2 Roszak P., Horvat S., Wółkowski J., Microaggressions and Discriminatory Behaviour Towards Religious Education Teachers in Polish Schools, „British Journal of Religious Education” 43 (2021), 3, p. 337-348.

3 More about the jurisprudence of the ECtHR in: Ł. Mirocha, Wolność a równość w orzeczeniach Europejskiego Trybunału Praw Człowieka i polskiego Trybunału Konstytucyjnego dotyczących wolności religijnej, in: P. Jabłoński, J. Kaczor, M. Pichlak (eds.), Prawo i polityka w sferze publicznej: Perspektywa wewnętrzna, Wrocław 2018, p. 111-123.

4 More on the topic of post-secularism in: P. Mazanka, Źródła sekularyzacji i sekularyzmu w kulturze europejskiej, Warszawa 2003.

Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 14 December 2021
Financed from the means of the Justice Fund, administered by the Minister of Justice.
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