Crucifix in state classrooms ‘no breach of human rights’

Malta has welcomed yesterday’s decision by the European Court of Human Rights that overturned the controversial 2009 ruling banning crucifixes from ­classrooms in Italian state schools.

Accepting an appeal submitted by the Italian government, the ECHR judges in Strasbourg ruled that displaying crucifixes in classrooms did not breach the rights of non-Catholic families.

Malta, Armenia, Bulgaria, Russia, Greece and San Marino had joined Italy in the legal battle and submitted their objections.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said Malta had fully supported the Italian authorities as it deemed the crucifix to be a symbol of European identity and heritage.

Fifteen of the 17 judges of the Court’s Grand Chamber voted in favour of the Italian appeal while two voted against. The verdict is binding on all 47 countries that are members of the Council of Europe.

The case was originally brought to the court by an atheist mother, Sole Latusi, an Italian citizen of Finnish origin, whose two sons attend a public school in the Italian city of Abano Terme.

The woman had argued that the refusal to remove the crucifix from classrooms was in violation of the secular principles that must be upheld by public schools.

In a decision which shook the Catholic world, the lower chamber of the court in 2009 ruled in her favour, saying that displaying crucifixes was in breach of freedom of religion.

In deciding to allow crucifixes to be kept in the classrooms the ECHR declared that the authorities “had acted within the limits of the margin of appreciation left to Italy in the context of its obligation to respect, in the exercise of the functions it assumed in relation to education and teaching, the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

The Vatican hailed the decision as “historic” and the Archbishop’s Curia welcomed the ruling in an initial reaction, as did Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Labour Leader Joseph ­Muscat.

Court ‘cannot suffer from historical Alzheimer’s’– Judge Giovanni Bonello

A European court should not be called upon to bankrupt centuries of European tradition, according to Judge Giovanni Bonello, who submitted a separate opinion in the case.

“No court, certainly not this court, should rob the Italians of part of their cultural personality,” he said.

“A court of human rights cannot allow itself to suffer from historical Alzheimer’s. It has no right to disregard the cultural continuum of a nation’s flow through time, nor to ignore what over the centuries served to mould and define the profile of a people.”

Although retiring towards the end of last year, Judge Bonello still formed part of the Grand Chamber – he will remain active until the pending cases he was assigned to are decided.

“I believe that before joining any crusade to demonise the crucifix, we should start by placing the presence of that emblem in Italian schools in a rightful historical perspective,” he said in his opinion, adding that, for centuries, virtually the only education in Italy was provided and funded by the Church, its religious orders and organisations.

Until relatively recently, the “secular” state had hardly bothered with education.

The millstones of history turned education and Christianity into almost interchangeable notions.

“The presence of the crucifix in Italian schools only testifies to this compelling and millennial historical reality... Now a court in a glass box a thousand kilometres away has been engaged to veto overnight what has survived countless generations. The court has been asked to be an accomplice in a major act of cultural vandalism.”

The ECHR, he said, ought to be ever cautious in taking liberties with other peoples’ liberties, including that of cherishing their own cultural imprinting – nations did not fashion their histories on the spur of the moment.

Making another argument, he said the European Convention of Human Rights gave the ECHR the remit to enforce freedom of religion and of conscience, but it was not empowered to bully states into secularism or to coerce countries into schemes of religious neutrality. Individual countries could choose whether to be secular or not.

But most of the arguments raised by Ms Lautsi called upon the court to ensure the separation of Church and state and to enforce a regime of “aseptic secularism” in Italian schools.

“Bluntly, that ought to be none of this court’s business. This court has to see Ms Lautsi and her children enjoy to the full their fundamental right to freedom of religion and conscience. Period.”

With or without a crucifix on a schoolroom wall, the Lautsis enjoyed the most absolute and untrammelled freedom of conscience and religion as demarcated by the Convention.

“Millions of Italian children have, over the centuries, been exposed to the crucifix in schools. This neither turned Italy into a confessional state nor the Italians into citizens of a theo­cracy.”

See Judge Bonello’s full contribution in the pdf link below.

Attached files

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