There was a piece of good news in Europe last week. It came from – of all places, some would say – the European Court of Human Rights. We didn’t read much about it in the newspapers but it was picked up by the ever-vigilant Iona Institute in Dublin.
The Court ruled that the 47 member-states of the Council of Europe are not violating anyone’s rights by displaying religious symbols like the crucifix in public places like the walls of State classrooms. The decision overturned a previous ruling by the same court in November 2009 when it found in favour of a Finnish woman living in Italy, Soile Lautsi, an atheist, who complained that her right to freedom of religion had been violated because her children were exposed to the crucifix in State schools.
The ruling means that those who, over the last few years, have banned religious symbols from public places, extending even cribs, can no longer look to the Convention for comfort. No-one’s rights are violated because they see a particular religious object in a public place, even if the public place is owned by the State. The argument, ‘I’m offended’, isn’t going to work anymore.
The decision caused uproar in Italy and was even condemned by parties that are traditionally anti-clerical. Twenty other countries as diverse as Norway and Greece joined Italy in condemning the decision and ten joined Italy’s appeal against the ruling.
On Friday, by a margin of 15 to 2 the Grand Chamber of the Court found that the initial decision was flawed. It held that member-states should be free to decide these matters themselves, meaning it fell within their “margin of appreciation”. It held that displaying the crucifix did not in itself amount to “indoctrination”.
The Court declared: “There is no evidence before the Court that the display of a religious symbol on classroom walls may have an influence on pupils and so it cannot reasonably be asserted that it does or does not have an effect on young persons whose convictions are still in the process of being formed.
“[I]t is true that by prescribing the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms – a sign which, whether or not it is accorded in addition a secular symbolic value, undoubtedly refers to Christianity – the regulations confer on the country’s majority religion preponderant visibility in the school environment.
“That is not in itself sufficient, however, to denote a process of indoctrination on the respondent State’s part and establish a breach of the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.”
It held that, when dealing with sensitive cultural and religious issues, States who are members of the Council of Europe have “a wide margin of appreciation”. The Grand Chamber rejected the original ECHR finding that the Crucifixes represented “powerful external symbols” which unduly influence pupils. It held that, “the decision whether or not to perpetuate a tradition falls in principle within the margin of appreciation of the respondent State”. It added: “The Court must moreover take into account the fact that Europe is marked by a great diversity between the States of which it is composed, particularly in the sphere of cultural and historical development.
The decision recognised State sovereignty in this area, and accepted that States are allowed to give recognition to the majority religion of the State and to their national and cultural heritage, meaning in the case of a country like Italy, Poland or Ireland, Christianity.