A Swiss flag is pictured on the Mont-Blanc bridge over Lake Leman in Geneva on March 21, 2014. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

In Switzerland, the humble handshake between a teacher and children at the beginning and end of the day — a tradition throughout much of the country — has become an unlikely battleground in a public debate about religious freedom and sexual equality. Now, one Swiss canton has added a financial element to the controversy, warning families of children who refuse to shake hands with their teachers that they would face a fine of up to $5,000.

In April, two students at a school in the town of Therwil, near Basel, had requested an exemption from shaking a teacher's hand. The two teenagers, brothers from a Syrian family, had suggested that shaking a woman's hand went against Islamic teachings. In a compromise, the local school district ruled that the two children would not have to shake any teacher's hand, whether male or female.

After Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper reported about this, however, the agreement with the school district began to come undone. A widespread debate about immigration and integration erupted in the Swiss press, with many arguing that the students' calls for religious freedom was at odds with the Swiss tradition of gender equality. "We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom," Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said in an interview with Swiss-German broadcaster SRF. "The handshake is part of our culture.”

The school defended the decision. “They are no longer allowed to shake the hand of any teacher, male or female," headmaster Jurg Lauener told SRF. "For us, that addresses the question of discrimination.”

The regional education authorities in the Basel-Country canton had initially stayed out of the debate, but they released a statement on Wednesday that reversed the school district's decision. The schoolchildren would be required to shake the hand of their teacher, the statement said, or their guardians would be fined.

"The public interest with respect to equality between men and women and the integration of foreigners significantly outweighs the freedom of conscience (freedom of religion) of the students," authorities said in a statement, later adding that the "the social gesture of handshake is important for the employability of the students in their later professional lives."

The situation is the latest controversy over the role of Islam in Swiss society. Muslims are thought to constitute about 5 percent of Switzerland's population, but many Swiss argue that the community has not integrated fully. In 2009, Swiss voters banned the construction of minarets, and last year the canton of Ticino made the wearing of a burqa in public punishable by a $10,000 fine. There have also been other disputes involving education, with some Muslim parents fined for demanding that their daughters be exempt from swimming classes.

The controversy over the Therwil schoolchildren had been made worse by reports in the Swiss media that suggested that one of the boys had posted videos on Facebook supportive of the Islamic State militant group and that their father was an imam at a mosque run by the King Faisal Foundation, a Saudi-funded body that has been accused of ties to extremism. The family had been granted political asylum and was seeking citizenship, Basler Zeitung reported Wednesday, but the case had been suspended during the "handshake affair" for further investigation.

Switzerland's Muslim community had largely refused to support the boys' refusal to shake hands, pointing out that it was a Swiss tradition that many Muslims quite happily accept. To "the students and parents I would suggest the following reflection: Can the denial of shaking hands be more important than the Islamic commandment of mutual respect?" Montassar Ben Mrad, president of Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland, had said in the statement.

Others, however, had questioned why the scandal had gained so much traction in Switzerland. "One would think that the continued existence of Switzerland's core values was at stake, when this particular case in fact involves just two high school students who have said they wish to greet their teacher in a different way than with a handshake," a statement from the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland said.

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