Crucifix case overturned by Human Rights Court

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has overturned a previous judgment that Italy had violated the rights of non-believing parents by displaying crucifixes in school classrooms.

Present as the ruling was read out were Italian officials and representatives of the 10 countries: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, Russia and San Marino. Also there was the Finnish-born Italian citizen who first brought up the case against crosses in her two sons' classrooms 10 years ago, Sonia Lautsi. In November 2009, the ECHR said the display of crosses in Italian schools violated children's and parents' freedom of belief, prompting Rome to request that the matter be referred to the court's appeal body, the Grand Chamber.

The Grand Chamber authorized written observations from 10 non-governmental bodies, including Human Rights Watch, Interrights, the Italian Christian Workers Association and the Central Committee of German Catholics.

In addition, 33 members of the European Parliament, which has no link to the ECHR, were for the first time ever given permission to intervene.

The Grand Chamber only rarely agrees to hear appeals and only on matters deemed of particular significance throughout the Council of Europe's 47 member states.

In the 2009 decision, the Strasbourg court unanimously upheld an application from Lautsi, stressing that parents must be allowed to educate their children as they see fit.

It said children were entitled to freedom of religion and said that although "encouraging" for some pupils, the crucifix could be "emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion".

It said the state has an obligation "to refrain from imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons are dependent on it or in places where they are particularly vulnerable".

But arguing against the court's comments, the Italian government's representative Nicola Lettieri said crucifixes in Italian classrooms are "a passive symbol that bear no relationship to the actual teaching, which is secular".

He said there was "no indoctrination" involved and said the cross did not deprive parents of the right to raise their children as they saw fit.

The jurist representing the 10 Council of Europe members supporting Italy, Joseph Weiler, said that "Italy without the crucifix would no longer be Italy".

"The crucifix is both a national and a religious symbol," he said, suggesting that religious references and symbols are pervasive in Europe and do not necessarily connote faith.

Crucifixes are a fixture in Italian public buildings although the postwar Constitution ordered a separation of Church and State, and Catholicism ceased to be Italy's state religion in 1984.

Two Fascist-era decrees from 1924 and 1928, which were never repealed, are usually used to justify their status, although a 2007 education ministry directive also recommended they be displayed in schools.

Lautsi started her legal battle in 2001 when her sons were aged 11 and 13, and it reached Italy's Constitutional Court in 2004.

However, the Constitutional Court declined to rule on the matter, pointing out the crucifix provisions stemmed from secondary decrees predating the constitution, rather than parliament-made law currently on the Italian statute books.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “This is a severe blow to the concept of state neutrality in relation to religion, and to secularism. It flies in the face of Europe’s increasing plurality and diversity and risks damaging the court’s previous reputation of treating all citizen’s equally.

“No state in Europe is any longer monocultural. Globalisation has ensured that many religions now flourish throughout Europe and huge proportions of the population have no religion at all. We all have to somehow coexist peacefully. But conflict over religion is rising throughout the EU and it will not be helped by allowing states to give this kind of privilege to one particular denomination of one particular religion. In the light of this, the Grand Chamber judgment must be seen deeply unhelpful and regressive.

"Thanks to this judgment the Catholic Church retains a privileged position in the state, despite Italy’s secular constitution. This cannot be fair or just in a country of many religions and none.

"Although we would have preferred if the Grand Chamber had upheld the original judgment, the Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted in its judgments that the Convention on Human Rights is a living instrument that evolves as time goes on and that secularism and an attitude of neutrality towards religion on the part of the state are in keeping with the values of the Convention. Accordingly, in the longer term, we are confident that our view that the use of the state education system to promote a particular religion amounts to a violation of parental rights and to a breach of the values of tolerance and neutrality, will prevail. We also note that the Court specifically distinguished between the passive presence of symbols such as crucifxes and activities such as school prayer which represent a much more significant violation of Convention rights."