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Secularism in Europe takes a blow as Vatican flexes its political muscle

The ruling from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights that the display of crucifixes in state school classrooms does not violate a student’s freedom of conscience is a severe blow to the concept of secularism in Europe. It also leaves an uncomfortable suspicion over the motives and independence of the European Court.

The judgment is an undoubted blow to secularism and a reminder of Vatican power. It will do little or nothing, however, to help the Vatican realise its stated goal: the re-evangelisation of Europe for the Catholic Church"

- Terry Sanderson, NSS President

This is not just sour grapes from those on the losing end. We must ask why the original decision — which was reached unanimously — has now been completely reversed by the upper chamber of the same court. How could the first court have got it so wrong?

Friday’s reversal has implications in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, opening the way for Europeans who want religious symbols in classrooms to petition their governments to allow them. It is not immediately clear how the ruling would affect France, a traditionally Catholic country with a strictly secular state that does not allow crucifixes or other religious symbols in public schools, including the Muslim headscarf.

The court’s Grand Chamber said Italy has done nothing wrong and it found no evidence that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls “might have an influence on pupils.” This is the polar opposite of what the previous court said. But that does not mean that religion now has carte blanche to impose itself in schools. In its judgment the Court specifically distinguished between the (in their words) “passive presence” of symbols such as crucifixes and activities such as school prayer which the Court said represents a much more significant violation of Convention:

“a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality ... It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities”

The Italian Government had argued that the crucifix is not a religious symbol at all, but a symbol of tradition and culture. The court did not accept this “reasoning”.

Massimo Albertin, Mrs Lautsi’s husband, said that the family was disappointed and “disillusioned” by the ruling, saying it showed that the court didn’t respect the secular principles on which Italian society is built. “Freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, freedom of choice are fundamental principles and in this case they weren’t respected,” Albertin said. A self-described atheist, Mr Albertin said he didn’t think the family had any further recourse, saying the ruling showed “the Vatican is too strong for individuals.”

So what happened in the months between the unanimous finding last year and the utter turnaround this year by another chamber of the same court?

The final reasoning in the Grand Chamber judgment is indeed strange, not to say strained. Some commentators have asked whether the long delay between the two judgments was caused by the judges struggling to come up with some reasoning that would not sound too bizarre as to why they had completely changed their minds.

And we will never know what kind of pressure went on behind the scenes, except that we do know the Vatican went into overdrive to ensure that the original decision was overturned, calling in its reactionary friends to support it.

Nor should we forget also that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has problems of its own with growing opposition to its judgments throughout Europe. There is much pressure in this country, for instance, for the Government to entirely withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and establish its own Bill of Rights. When the ECHR ruled, for example, that prisoners should have the right to vote, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said it made him feel physically sick.

The Grand Chamber must also have been aware that Italy had signalled that it had no intention of obeying the ban on crucifixes, anyway. Italy would have paid the fine and then totally ignored the ruling, as it has done in other cases. That would have further undermined the court’s authority, effectively rendering its judgments meaningless.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) – (a branch of US televangelist 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.)

The ECLJ’s Director, Grégor Puppinck, said:

“This strong political movement counteracts the attempts of radical secularists to use human rights against Christianity.

“These radical secularists, by rejecting Christianity, utilize the culture of human rights to de-Christianize Europe in the name of respect and tolerance of non-Christians. Behind a discourse of tolerance, religious pluralism serves as a pretext to marginalize Christianity and could eventually impose on the European civilization exclusive secularism. The objective of this radical secularism is to introduce secularization of society in order to promote a certain cultural model in which the absence of value (neutrality) and relativism (pluralism) are values in themselves supporting a political project that is supposed to be both “post-religious” and “post-identity”; in one word “postmodern.” This political project has a claim to a monopoly as a philosophical system.”

But this is not an opinion shared by all evangelical Protestants. Many of them recognise that the crucifix (as opposed to the cross) is a specifically Catholic symbol and this verdict upholds the special place that Catholicism has in Italian affairs.

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”.

They added: “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.”

Of course they don’t, which is why the Vatican is cock-a-hoop over the decision.

Some non-Catholics — Christians of other denominations, atheists and those of other religions — have already recognised that this decision makes them into second-class citizens. And it is at this point, when it is too late, that they suddenly recognise the value of secularism.

The judgment is an undoubted blow to secularism and a reminder of Vatican power. It will do little or nothing, however, to help the Vatican realise its stated goal: the re-evangelisation of Europe for the Catholic Church. Mass attendance remains in freefall, even in Italy.

See also: Vatican tells UN that persecuting gay people is a “human right”