22 Mar 2011

European Court of Human Rights says crucifix not a symbol of indoctrination, reverses ban in Italian public schools

Secular News Daily - March 17, 2011

Human Rights Court bows to pressure – overrules earlier unanimous judgement against crucifixes in classrooms

by British Humanist Association

In a dramatic reversal of its original unanimous decision, the European Court of Human Rights has decided to allow Italy to retain its law requiring crucifixes to be displayed in every classroom in all public (non-religious) schools.

It bases its dubious finding on a view that this pervasive display of crucifixes falls short of indoctrination and is therefore within the ‘margin of appreciation’ allowing states some flexibility in how they implement human rights

This ruling means that States retain a much larger ‘margin of appreciation’ than expected: in effect, not only over how but even whether they protect some human rights. Laws in different states can now be directly incompatible with each other. Thus Italy can require display of crucifixes in its schools while Belgium and France prohibit them. The ruling marks a retreat from universal human rights, especially for matters relating to sensitive topics - such as wearing religious symbols or (as in the recent Irish abortion case) the right to reproductive health - on which individual states stand out against the broad consensus in Europe.

The Court accepted that the cross is “above all a religious symbol”, contrary to Italy’s contention it is instead a symbol of Italian identity. Italy had made the ludicrous claim that the crucifix has "an ethical meaning [that] evoked . . . non-violence, . . . the primacy of the individual over the group and the importance of freedom of choice, the separation of politics from religion. . . [carrying] a humanist message which could be read independently of its religious dimension . . . it was perfectly compatible with secularism and . . . could be perceived as devoid of religious significance" (quoted from the original judgement's summary of Italy's case, para 35).

David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation, said: “This highly regrettable judgement retreats from the clarity of the initial ruling that the State and its institutions must be impartial, not favouring one religion or belief over another. This principle is particularly important when the State is addressing school pupils, since they are not only immature and impressionable but also a captive audience.

“The idea that the crucifix is a harmless cultural item flies in the face of common sense. It is a portrayal of the execution of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion. It is a very powerful image and potentially a highly disturbing one to put before children. It is the image of a man being tortured to death. And the explanation for this horrific event is scarcely less disturbing: it is that he is being tortured because they, the children, are wicked and sinful. This is itself, of course, a religious doctrine, not a fact.

“However, the ruling runs so contrary to the established direction of educational policy in the Council of Europe and the OSCE and to the proclaimed secularism of the EU that it is unlikely to have a lasting effect. Europeans are voting with their feet, leaving the churches and giving little value to religion.” (See note.)

“Our sympathy goes to Soile Lautse and her family who for ten years have fought this case with dedication and principle.”

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, added: “It is to be hoped that the [majority group of] judges were not yielding to the huge political pressure put on them by Italy and what looked like a “Holy Alliance” of Catholic and Orthodox states that backed its appeal and by the Vatican, the Greek Orthodox Church and other reactionary religious interests whose fears of losing influence in an increasingly secular Europe will have been abated by this judgement.”

The Court’s ruling is doubly regrettable since it is clear from its past findings that the Italian Constitutional Court would have decided the case differently: in a case in 2000 it said that the Italian constitution requires the State to maintain “equidistance and impartiality” in matters of religion or belief, “without attaching importance to the number of adherents of this or that religion or the scale of social reactions to infringement of the rights of one or the other.”


More details including background to the case
. pdf

This article was found at:

Secular News Daily  -  March 24, 2011

The Italian Job: Religious Right Lawyers Sell Out Minority Evangelicals In Crucifix Case

by Rob Boston

Religious Right legal groups are all excited over a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights dealing with crucifix displays in public schools in Italy.

The European high court, ruling 15-2, overturned a lower court decision anddeclared that the crucifixes can stay. They don’t oppress anyone’s rights, the court said, and European nations are entitled to some latitude in dealing with topics such as this.

The legal challenge was brought by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish woman who now lives near Venice, where her children attend public schools.

Justices with the Strasbourg, France-based court wrote, “While the crucifix was above all a religious symbol, there was no evidence before the court that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.”

As you might expect, the Vatican was pretty excited. But the European Centre for Law and Justice, a branch of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, was elated. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) also hailed the ruling. (Both groups had filed briefs urging the court to uphold the crucifixes.)

I found the reaction of the Religious Right legal groups to be most curious. Both of these organizations are largely evangelical Christian in character. Why are they celebrating the elevation of a Roman Catholic symbol by the Italian government?

Their coreligionists – evangelicals who actually live in Italy – aren’t so pleased with the outcome. The Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches called the ruling “a decision that does not fully realize a secular state” and “baggage from a society dominated by Catholic culture.”

Added the evangelical churches, “Crucifixes will continue to be present in schoolrooms and courtrooms, but for the minorities who won religious and civil rights 150 years ago, such as the evangelical churches, these crosses do not convey a common sense of belonging.”

Interestingly, when the ADF sent out an email about the cases, it was headlined, “Crosses can stay in Italy’s classrooms, European Court rules?.” I find it hard to believe that anyone at the ADF is that theologically ignorant. A cross and a crucifix are not the same thing. The latter includes a depiction of the body of Christ; although common in Catholic and some Orthodox churches, it’s not a symbol used by Protestants.

So, the ACLJ and the ADF are celebrating a court ruling that elevates a majority faith and actually takes away the rights of minority evangelicals. These Religious Right zealots are so obsessed with opposing secular government they’re willing to throw their own coreligionists under the church bus. Yet, both groups expect us to believe that they don’t want religious majority rule in America.

Historically, evangelicals in Italy have had a tough time of it. Catholicism was the government-enforced faith for many centuries, and Italian officials weren’t known for religious tolerance. The persecution, torture and murder of the Waldensians in the 11th and 12th centuries is just one example.

Italy was formed around 1860 when various states in the region were pulled together. Originally a kingdom, the country’s modern constitution, adopted in 1947, protects religious liberty – on paper, at least. Article VIII says all religious confessions “are equally free before the law.”

In reality, the Catholic Church has long enjoyed a favored relationship with the state. A concordat signed between church officials and future fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1929 guaranteed church control of education. Classroom crucifixes symbolized the church-state embrace.

Provisions of the concordat – known as the Lateran Treaty – were incorporated into the 1948 constitution. Article VII of that document states, “The State and the Catholic Church are, each within its own order, independent and sovereign. Their relationship is regulated by the lateran pacts. Amendments to these pacts which are accepted by both parties do not require the procedure of constitutional amendments.”

The 1929 concordat was updated in 1984. The new pact declared that Catholicism was no longer the sole religion of the Italian state. But it also called Catholicism part of the “historical heritage of the Italian people,” and the government promised that the faith would be taught “in state schools of every order and grade, excepting universities.” (Classes are voluntary.)

Crucifixes are also common in Italian courtrooms. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Luigi Tosti, a Jewish judge who protested the presence of crucifix in his courtroom in the city of Camerino was fired, and his dismissal was later upheld by Italy’s highest court. (Tosti said the recent ruling on classroom crucifixes is “grotesque.”)

One more thought on this: Italy, like the rest of Western Europe, isn’t exactly a church-going nation these days. Some scholars put the church attendance rate at about 15 percent. Declarations by courts that the presence of the crucifix isn’t that important any more aren’t going to reverse that trend.

Consider what the court said: The crucifix doesn’t affect pupils. But isn’t it supposed to? Isn’t that the very idea behind displaying it? But we’re told that the major symbol of the country’s dominant religion has become like wallpaper – after a while, you don’t even notice it anymore, and it has no affect on anyone. Can someone explain to me how this is good for religion?

Most likely, Italy will end up looking like a lot of other nations in Western Europe. It will have a “Christian heritage” and all of the trappings of faith (religious symbols in government buildings, tax aid to churches, maybe even an official state church) – it just won’t have many people who actually attend services or take religion very seriously. (Has anyone been following the antics of that good and faithful Catholic Silvio Berlusconi lately?)

So the ACLJ and the ADF saved the symbol. Nice job. But their victory rings hollow because it represents the ultimate triumph of symbolism over substance. I find it hard to believe that the win is in the long-term interests of religious vitality.

And it certainly doesn’t bolster true religious liberty. Ask the evangelical Christians in Italy.

This article was found at:



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