Strasbourg judgment overturns 2009 ruling that crucifixes violate secular principles, calling them an ‘essentially passive symbol’
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that crucifixes are acceptable in the continent’s state school classrooms, describing them as an “essentially passive symbol” with no obvious religious influence. In its judgment, handed down in Strasbourg, the court found that while the crucifix was “above all a religious symbol” there was no evidence that its display on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.
The ruling reverses their earlier, unanimous decision from 2009 in favour of a Finnish-born mother who said that state schools in the Italian town of Abano Terme, where she lives, refused to remove the Roman Catholic symbols from classrooms.
Soile Lautsi said the crucifix violated the secular principles that state schools were meant to uphold. The court agreed, saying children were entitled to freedom of religion and 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 had 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 the decision caused uproar in some European countries, especially Italy, which argued that the cross was a symbol of the continent’s cultural and historic roots.
Their interventions led to the grand chamber of 17 judges overturning the 2009 ruling. In their judgment they observed that “a crucifix on a wall was an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”
They added there was nothing to suggest that “the [Italian] authorities were intolerant of pupils who believed in other religions, were non-believers or who held non-religious philosophical convictions.” Nor was there evidence that the presence of a crucifix had “encouraged the development of teaching practices with a proselytising tendency”.
Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, welcomed the verdict, declaring that “popular sentiment in Europe” had won.
All countries that are members of the Council of Europe will be required to obey the ruling.
Some pressure on the judges of the European Court
In 2009 the ex-fascist Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa on the main national television channel: “Anyway we won’t remove the crucifix. They can die! The crucifix will remain in all school classrooms, in all public spaces. They can die! They can die, together with those fake international bodies. They don’t count at all.”