IN STRONGLY worded judgments, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg rejected a complaint by an Italian citizen, Soile Lautsi, that there were crucifixes on the walls of classrooms of the Italian state school attended by her two sons. They infringed the right to education and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, she argued.
The case originated in an application against the Italian Republic by Ms Lautsi in July 2006. In the school year 2001-02, her sons Dataico and Sami Albertin attended the Istituto Comprensivo Statale Vittorino da Feltre, a state school in Abano Terme. A crucifix was on the wall in each of the classrooms.
In November 2009, a Chamber of the second section of the Human Rights Court declared that there had been a violation of Ms Lautsi’s rights (News, 6 November 2009). The Italian government asked for the case to be referred to a panel of the Grand Chamber.
The Italian government argued that the presence of crucifixes in classrooms was the expression of a “national particularity”, characterised notably by close relations between the state, the people, and Roman Catholicism. Keeping crucifixes in schools was therefore a matter of preserving a centuries-old tradition. It was argued that parents’ right to respect for their “family culture” ought not to infringe the community’s right to transmit its culture, or the right of children to discover it.
The governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Russian Federation, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, and the Republic of San Marino intervened in the case. They argued that states should not have to divest themselves of part of their cultural identity simply because that identity was of religious origin. That would lead to the “Americanisation” of Europe, they said, in that a single and unique rule, and a rigid separation of Church and state, would be binding on everyone. They submitted that favouring secularism was a political position that, while respectable, was not neutral.
The government of the principality of Monaco declared that it shared the view of the Italian government that the crucifix was a “passive symbol” that was found on the coat of arms and flags of many states, and reflected a national identity rooted in history.
The European Centre for Law and Justice submitted that Ms Lautsi’s sons’ “innermost convictions” had not been violated, because the children had been neither forced to believe nor prevented from believing.
On the other hand, the International Commission of Jurists and Human Rights Watch submitted that the compulsory display of religious symbols in state-school classrooms was incompatible with the principle of neutrality and rights guaranteed by the Convention.
The 17 judges of the Grand Chamber decided by 15 votes to two that there had been no violation of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. Judge Bonello said that a European court should not be called upon to “bankrupt centuries of European tradition” and “rob Italians of part of their cultural personality”. The court should, “before joining any crusade to demonise the crucifix”, place the presence of that emblem in its rightful historical perspective in Italian schools.
Until relatively recently, the “secular” state had delegated education to Christian institutions, who had a virtual monopoly on education. The presence of the crucifix in Italian schools testified to that historical reality. Now, Judge Bonello said, “a court in a glass box, a thousand kilometres away, had been engaged to veto overnight what [had] survived countless generations”, and was being “asked to be an accomplice in a major act of cultural vandalism”.
It was “uninformed nonsense”, the Judge said, “to assert that the presence of the crucifix in Italian schools bears witness to a reactionary fascist measure imposed, in between gulps of castor oil, by Signor Mussolini”, whose circulars merely took formal notice of a historical reality that predated him by several centuries.
“Nations do not fashion their histories on the spur of the moment.”
The court’s function was to determine whether the presence of a Christian symbol in any way interfered with Ms Lautsi’s and her children’s basic right to freedom of religion
“With or without a crucifix on a schoolroom wall,” the Judge said, they “enjoyed the most absolute and untrammelled freedom of conscience and religion as demarcated by the Convention”. Removing the crucifix from where it had “quietly and passively been for centuries” would not “have been a manifestation of neutrality by the state”, and dislodging it “would be an act of intolerance by agnostics and secularists”.
The “mere display of a voiceless testimonial of a historical symbol, so emphatically part of European heritage”, did not amount to “teaching”, nor did it undermine in any meaningful way a parent’s fundamental right to determine what, if any, religious orientation their children should follow.
In a class of 30 pupils, the “crucifix purge” promoted by Ms Lautsi would be an imposition of the crucifix-hostile philosophy of one pupil’s parent over the crucifix-receptive philosophy of all the parents of the other 29 pupils. The other 29 parents should be able to claim an equal right to the presence of the crucifix, whether as a traditional Christian emblem, or even solely as a cultural souvenir, the Judge said.
Judge Malinverni and Judge Kalaydjieva, the judges who dissented, said that effective protection of the rights guaranteed by the Convention required states to observe the strictest denominational neutrality.