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Politicians clash over school celebrations in churches

A deputy ombudsman's policy position argues that school events should be inclusive, which makes churches problematic.

Loviisan kirkon lasimaalaus, jossa kaksi enkeliä.
A church in Loviisa, Finland Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

Politicians in Finland are divided over a new policy position from deputy parliamentary ombudsman Pasi Pölönen that states that school celebrations to mark Christmas or the end of the academic year should not be held in churches.

Finnish schools remain closely linked to the two national religions: the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church, and it is not uncommon for school events to be arranged on their premises.

The deputy parliamentary ombudsman, who is charged with ensuring that state officials observe the law, said in the policy position that school celebrations should be inclusive, and therefore arranged in a way that all of the pupils can participate, regardless of their beliefs.

Churches convey religious messages

The ombudsman also reasoned that holding school functions in churches is problematic because the buildings are intended for religious services and therefore convey religious messages.

His decision has been received with both criticism and praise in the Finnish Parliament. The Left Alliance and the Greens have commended Pölönen's recommendation, but representatives of the Centre, Finns and National Coalition parties (NCP) have denounced his position.

NCP chair Petteri Orpo and Centre Party chair Katri Kulmuni were quick to comment, arguing that churches should remain an alternative venue for school events.

Centre Party MP and constitutional law committee member Markus Lohi said that the deputy ombudsman's decision directly contradicted the committee's unanimous decision from 2014. He also noted that holding a school function in a church does not automatically make the event religious.

NCP: Policy should be made clearer

In a joint statement, NCP members of the parliamentary constitutional law committee Wille Rydman and Heikki Vestman said that Pölönen's decision is "at least in tension" with the committee's earlier interpretation. The conservative party MPs asked the committee to clarify the situation.

In his blog, Rydman goes into greater detail about his take on the issue. The MP said that in his opinion, the deputy parliamentary ombudsman's decision seems to have been based more on the wording of the Basic Education Decree, and not on what the constitutional committee had ruled.

"This is quite problematic, especially since the parliamentary constitutional law committee has its own stridently-worded recommendation. This was largely necessary because the position of the ombudsmen had diverged from the view of the committee. Now we find ourselves in the same situation," Rydman said.

The deputy parliamentary ombudsman's policy position has also led to consternation among nationalist Finns Party parliamentarians.

Committee expected to disagree

The Finnish Parliament's constitutional law committee will likely have to take a position on the deputy ombudsman's position in the near future. The last time the committee presented its interpretation of the matter dates back to 2014, in connection with the Chancellor of Justice's report from that year.

The Chancellor of Justice's annual report from 2018 is still on the committee's desk, awaiting consideration, as budget negotiations pushed it off the agenda. There has been no time to hear any expert testimony on the report either.

The constitutional law committee has not yet discussed the new school celebration guidelines from the deputy ombudsman, but consideration of the 2018 report might provide a good opportunity to do so.

The committee's report on the ombudsman office's annual report was completed in October, before the new policy position from deputy Pölönen was released.

MPs will debate the 2018 ombudsman report on Wednesday evening in parliament, and the school celebration venue issue is expected to come up in debate.

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