Students’ Right to Conscientious Objection

Hashtag: #HDPyasambildirgesi (HDP Declaration of Life)

Object and Opt-out on Moral or Religious Grounds

Non-recognition of the right to conscientious objection is an enduring and highly controversial issue in Turkey and recently, HDP (Haklarm Demokratik Partisi), the country’s leading opposition party promised to legalize it if their candidates win the June 2015 parliamentary election. Conscientious objection or CO according to UN Commission on Human Rights is the right of every individual to object on grounds of conscience but a number of states such as Turkey are unwilling to recognize it as an important human right.

Conscience or our sense of right or wrong is in effect the core features of a person’s moral and spiritual identity. Normally, people refused participation or involvement in something because it is against their moral and religious principles. For example, some people refused to participate in war because of their deeply embedded moral, ethical, or religious belief that killing another human being is wrong. Note that personal code, political, sociological, philosophical, psychological, and other pragmatic reasons are not accepted the basis for a conscientious objection.

Students at public or government-subsidized private schools are free to attend religion classes but they can also choose not to and exercise their right to conscientious objection on moral or religious grounds. The right to object is also applicable to a vast range of issues such as oath taking, compulsory patriotic exercises, school curricula, and others that may be easily granted due schools’ obligation to satisfy its neutrality obligation. For instance, a student’s objecting on a culturally impartial and race discriminating curriculum may be allowed to opt-out or exempt him from course requirements.

However, similar to conscientious objection to military service, ritual practice, living arrangement, and others, the objection made on moral or religious grounds should pass the test of sincerity.

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Testing the Sincerity of the Conscience

Most educational institutions have formal policies permitting students at all levels to exercise their right to conscientious objection. In medical schools, for instance, students are allowed to use alternatives if testing of certain laboratory animals such as mice, dog, cats, rabbits, and others violates their conscience. In the United States, the right to conscientious objection to dissection in educational projects is guaranteed by law and school policies authorizing teachers to cooperate and develop an acceptable alternative with their students.

The right to conscientious objection is potentially vulnerable to abuse such as avoiding the arduous training and danger associated with military service. It is, therefore, necessary to ascertain whether the objection is actually based on conscience rather than personal code or philosophy in life.

A student exercising the right to conscientious objection and opting-out of a religious education class must clearly demonstrate that attending such class violates his or her conscience. For instance, the right may be granted if the student is a member of another religious group or verifiable evidence of a religious conviction that receiving religious teaching other than their own preacher or priest is a sin. Similarly, a student’s conscientious objection on racially discriminating and culturally impartial curriculum must be accompanied by strong conviction or proof of sincere and meaningful and enduring belief that is contradictory to that of the curriculum.


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