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European Court Affirms Crucifixes May be Displayed in Public Schools

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Last Friday, a European Court affirmed the right of Italians to display crucifixes in their public schools, signaling a significant victory for religious freedom in Europe.

The 15-2 decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the highest European court charged with interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights, overturned a unanimous 2009 judgment by a lower chamber.
Sole Lautsi, an atheist, originally brought the case in Italian courts where she lost.  
She then turned to the European court, which originally supported her arguments on the grounds that religious symbols violated the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and a child’s right to a secular education.

The 2009 decision resulted an unprecedented outcry from European states and politicians.  Ten European countries intervened in the case, while 10 additional European countries supported Italy’s position publicly. Dozens of European politicians also joined the case as interveners.

“Overturning the decision of the Chamber represents a rejection of a ‘One Size Fits All’ Europe and a vindication of its pluralist tradition … for recognizing religious symbols in the public space,” said Professor Joseph Weiler of the New York University School of Law. Weiler, an Orthodox Jew, represented eight countries defending the crucifix display before the court.

The final decision can be summarized by the concurring opinion of Judge Giovanni Bonello who wrote, “The Convention has given this Court the remit to enforce freedom of religion and of conscience, but has not empowered it to bully States into secularism or to coerce countries into schemes of religious neutrality.” “It is for each individual State to choose whether to be secular or not, and whether, and to what extent, to separate Church and governance.”

“This case sets a very important precedent for the Court of accepting neutrality over the previously accepted concept of secularization,” said Grégor Puppinck, Director of the Strasbourg-based European Centre for Law and Justice, whose intervention was supported by 79 members of European parliaments.  “Secularization is exclusive because it favors a secular belief system to the exclusion of all other beliefs, especially religious beliefs, while the principle of neutrality is inclusive because it allows both religious and secular beliefs in the public space,” said Puppinck.

The governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Russian Federation, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania and the Republic of San Marino joined Italy as interveners in the case.  Their position was supported publicly by Albania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

“A loss in this case would have meant, in essence, that it would be illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights to have religious symbols in any state institution anywhere in Europe,” said Roger Kiska, Legal Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund that represented 33 Members of the European Parliament in the case. “That would have set a dangerous example for the rest of the world.”

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