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24 March 2011

ECHR decision: Crucifixes to remain in Italian classrooms

In a notable positive decision by the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, its Grand Chamber ruled that Italy may continue to display crucifixes in the country's schools. This decision overturns the 2009 sentence which had found Italy guilty of violating religious freedom following an appeal presented by Soile Lautsi, an Italian citizen of Finnish origin, who complained that the crucifixes could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils. They found no evidence "that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils".

The judges found by 15 votes to two that there is nothing to prove that pupils may allegedly be influenced by the presence of the crucifix in classrooms and established a fundamental ruling applicable throughout Europe that the imposition of state secularism is unlawful. 

The Court ruled that "having regard to the preponderance of one religion throughout the history of a country, the fact that the school curriculum gave it greater prominence than other religions could not in itself be viewed as a process of indoctrination". The Court also highlighted the importance of respect for subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation which the states enjoy in religious matters. 

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), which intervened in the case, welcomed the effective renunciation by the ECHR of "the promotion of a radical conception of secularism" and saw the decision as a victory for a united Europe which clearly "rejected the suppression of Christianity in the name of human rights" and reaffirmed"the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their people and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy". Marginalisation of Christianity in the name of human rights would have broken this unity of moral and spiritual value, thereby splitting the identity of Europe. 

In practice, the Court has recognised that in countries with a Christian tradition, Christianity has a specific social legitimacy which is distinct from other philosophical and religious beliefs and justifies the adoption of a differential approach where necessary. It is because Italy is a country of Christian tradition that the Christian symbol can legitimately have a specific visible presence in society.  ECLJ considers that the ruling has profound significance for unification of the people of Europe. Faced with the risk of losing the place of Christianity in Europe, more than 20 countries took a public stance in favour of the presence of the symbol of Christ in the public sphere; namely, Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, the Russian Federation and San Marino as well as Albania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. The UK notably failed to take a public stance, but since decisions by the ECHR are binding on UK courts when interpreting the Human Rights Act it is hoped that this case will mark a change in the attitudes of UK courts which in recent cases have frequently assumed that secularism is the only legally acceptable human rights perspective.

The ECHR decision represents a significant political and legal shift which should counteract attempts by radical secularists to use human rights to marginalise Christianity and de-Christianise Europe in the name of secularism, respect, tolerance and religious pluralism. Of particular interest are the concurring opinions of Judges Power and Bonnello which make it absolutely clear that arguments based on freedom of religion cannot be used to remove religion from the public sphere.

Judge Power stated:

"Neutrality requires a pluralist approach on the part of the State, not a secularist one …. secularism (which was the applicant's preferred belief or world view) was, in itself, one ideology among others. A preference for secularism over alternative world views-whether religious, philosophical or otherwise-is not a neutral option."

Judge Bonnello said:

"A court of human rights cannot allow itself to suffer from historical Alzheimer's. It has no right to disregard the cultural continuum of a nation's flow through time, nor to ignore what, over the centuries, has served to mould and define the profile of a people.... Freedom of religion is not secularism. Freedom of religion is not the separation of Church and State. Freedom of religion is not religious equidistance - all seductive notions, but of which no-one has so far appointed this Court to be the custodian. In Europe, secularism is optional, freedom of religion is not."

According to the ECLJ the Lautsi case is definitively a significant victory for Europe and for the place of Christianity. It has confirmed that the Christian roots of Europe foster the profound identity and the social cohesion of the European continent. Countries with a Christian heritage possess a social legitimacy superior to that of other religious or philosophical beliefs. Accordingly, this undeniable legitimacy justifies the adoption of a differential approach where necessary. Such a differential approach can for example justify the presence of the crucifix in Italian classrooms.

The Court's decision may be accessed here.