European High Court Approves Crucifixes In Public Schools

Public schools in Italy may continue displaying crucifixes in their classrooms, the European Court of Human Rights has held.

The European high court, ruling 15-2 March 18, overturned a lower court decision and declared that displays of crucifixes in public schools do not oppress students’ rights and fall within the latitude European nations have for dealing with topics concerning religion.

The legal challenge was brought by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish woman who now lives near Venice, where her children attend public schools. Lautsi won at the first level, but the decision was appealed.

Justices with the Strasbourg, France-based court wrote, “While the crucifix was above all a religious symbol, there was no evidence before the court that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.”

The Vatican hailed the Lautsi and Others v. Italy ruling. A spokesman said, “It recognizes that the culture of human rights must not be placed in contradiction with the religious foundations of European civilization.”

Two U.S.-based Religious Right groups intervened in the matter. The European Centre for Law and Justice, a branch of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) both filed briefs urging the court to uphold the crucifixes.

The ACLJ and the ADF jumped into the case even though their evangelical co-religionists in Italy took the other side.

The Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches called the ruling “a decision that does not fully realize a secular state” and “baggage from a society dominated by Catholic culture.”

Added the evangelical churches, “Crucifixes will continue to be present in schoolrooms and courtrooms, but for the minorities who won religious and civil rights 150 years ago, such as the evangelical churches, these crosses do not convey a common sense of belonging.”

Italy’s modern constitution, adopted in 1947, contains Article VIII, which says all religious confessions “are equally free before the law.”

But in reality, the Catholic Church has long enjoyed a favored relationship with the state. A concordat signed between church officials and Benito Mussolini in 1929 guaranteed church control of education. Classroom crucifixes symbolized the church-state embrace.

Provisions of the concordat – known as the Lateran Treaty – were incorporated into the 1947 constitution. Article VII of that document states, “The State and the Catholic Church are, each within its own order, independent and sovereign. Their relationship is regulated by the lateran pacts. Amendments to these pacts which are accepted by both parties do not require the procedure of constitutional amendments.”

The 1929 concordat was updated in 1984. The new pact declared that Catholicism was no longer the sole religion of the Italian state. But it also called Catholicism part of the “historical heritage of the Italian people,” and the government promised that the faith would be taught “in state schools of every order and grade, excepting universities.” (Classes are voluntary.)

Crucifixes are also common in Italian courtrooms. When a Jewish judge in the city of Camerino named Luigi Tosti protested the presence of a crucifix in his courtroom, he was fired. His dismissal was later upheld by Italy’s highest court.