Thinking Anglicans

more about crucifixes in Italian schools

Updated Friday morning

Neil Addison has written at Religion Law Blog about this case, see Italian Crucifix Case – Grand Chamber Judgment.

As I predicted in my earlier Blogs the ECtHR based its decision on the concept of the “margin of appreciation” and decided that it was for individual countries to make these decisions so that just as France is free to ban all religious symbols from state schools so Italy is free to put religious symbols in state schools. In the UK context this is a significant basis for the decision. When UK Courts apply the Human Rights Act 1998 which incorporates the European Convention into UK law they apply the “margin of appreciation” so as to give that margin to Government and public bodies. The fact that the display of the Crucifix, or indeed any other form of religious symbol, is governed by the “margin of appreciation” will go a long way to free local and central government, schools etc from the danger of legal cases being brought to ban Nativity Displays, prayers at remembrance parades etc.

Unusually for the ECtHR there were a number of separate concurring judgments and I feel that some of them deserve quoting in detail because they do pick up and question the often unquestioned assumption that Secularism is the same as religious neutrality.

And he includes some quotes from them.

William Oddie wrote at the Catholic Herald that Fr Lombardi is wrong: the judgment on crucifixes isn’t about Europe’s Christian roots.

What is actually much more interesting about the court’s full judgment is that it gives a lengthy account, with generous quotations, of the original judgment in an Italian court which was subsequently set aside by the European Court, a reversal now itself reversed by the highest European Court, the “Grand Chamber” (maybe it doesn’t sound so silly in French). The Italian judgment found in favour of keeping crucifixes, not for their religious value, but because they symbolised the moral values which in the end led to the Enlightenment and the modern Italian secular state. Neat, eh? This the Italian court did by delivering itself of a lengthy disquisition on Italian cultural history which had nothing whatever to do with legal argument at all, long and windy stuff (wonderfully Italian: you simply can’t imagine it in an English courtroom), a lot of which is actually rather interesting stuff.

And he goes on to give an illustrative quote.

Andrew Brown at Cif belief writes Raise high the crucifix!

The decision of the European court of Human Rights that Italian schools may continue to display a crucifix in the classroom is obviously a victory for common sense, of which only fanatics would disapprove. But it is also, in a small way, something to help rescue the European project, and to preserve us from the wilder excesses of American political life.

The idea that human rights legislation should be used to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix is a profoundly totalitarian and superstitious perversion of one of our civilisation’s best inventions. To understand why, consider another family which would want their children protect from crucifixes, but this time not secular Finns, but Muslims. They exist. One Shia Muslim girl I know was not allowed as a child to walk through much of the Victoria & Albert museum, because to do so would expose her to Christian symbolism…


Shiranikha Herbert writes at the Church Times that Classroom crucifixes can stay, Strasbourg rules.

…The 17 judges of the Grand Chamber de­cided by 15 votes to two that there had been no violation of the rights guaranteed by the Convention. Judge Bonello said that a Euro­pean court should not be called upon to “bank­rupt centuries of European tradition” and “rob Italians of part of their cultural personality”. The court should, “before joining any crusade to demonise the crucifix”, place the presence of that emblem in its rightful historical perspective in Italian schools.

Until relatively recently, the “secular” state had delegated education to Christian institu­tions, who had a virtual monopoly on educa­tion. The presence of the crucifix in Italian schools testified to that historical reality. Now, Judge Bonello said, “a court in a glass box, a thousand kilometres away, had been engaged to veto overnight what [had] survived count­less generations”, and was being “asked to be an accomplice in a major act of cultural van­dal­ism”.

It was “uninformed nonsense”, the Judge said, “to assert that the presence of the cruci­fix in Italian schools bears witness to a reac­tion­ary fascist measure imposed, in between gulps of castor oil, by Signor Mussolini”, whose circulars merely took formal notice of a historical reality that predated him by several centuries.

“Nations do not fashion their histories on the spur of the moment…”

Strasbourg Observers has Lautsi v. Italy: the Argument from Neutrality (H/T 3minutetheologian)

Lautsi v. Italy was destined to achieve legendary status in the ECtHR’s case law. In fact, it became the stuff of legends long before the Grand Chamber’s judgment came out. Rarely has a judgment of a supranational court put such a spell on people. Rarely has it inspired such passionate comments and speculation even before it was released. Rarely have so many people looked forward to a judgment with such anxious anticipation. But why? What is it about the issues involved in this case that causes them to speak so strongly to the hearts and minds of so many? It is a question I have been asking myself for a while now, while reflecting on the tension between freedom of and freedom from religion in the Court’s case law. And the question is haunting me now more than ever, having read the Lautsi judgment and the comments in the blogosphere thereon and preparing a post of my own. I have not been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question. At least not satisfactory to a legal mind. My personal preoccupation with Lautsi seems to stem from a strong conviction that neutrality requires that the state should not hang crucifixes on the walls in public schools. I will attempt to explain my opinion in this post. But I will also explain why this is perhaps not an issue to be decided by a human rights court.

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10 years ago

“The European Project”? Which is what?
Odd that a Finn would object: a country with a flag made up of a cross and not one but two established churches, which get money from the state not only for buildings of historical interest but to pay their clergies. Did she move hoping to find total separation of church and state in another part of Europe?

Father Ron Smith
10 years ago

“One Shia Muslim girl I know was not allowed as a child to walk through much of the Victoria and Albert Museum, because to do so would expose her to Christian symbolism” – Andrew Brown @ C.I.F. belief – And this is not so silly as it sounds. I know of Christian fundamentalists who have advised fellow Christians to get rid of their Bhudda door-stop, because of their fear of spiritual contagion! Symbols can be very powerful objects – especially in the hands of fundamentalists – of any religion. What can be a legitimate object of devotion to one person,… Read more »

Sara MacVane
Sara MacVane
10 years ago

I must disagree with Andrew Brown about ‘common sense’ and ‘fanatics’. The State is completely separate from the RC church or any other church in Italy – in law if not always in practice. Taxes paid by everyone support state schools which are not supposed to have any church affiliation. Churches may have their own schools paid for by their own faithful, but state schools are for everyone. After the unification of Italy and until Mussolini made his (useful) compromise with the RC Church (so as to have to have church backing – he did have to marry his wife… Read more »

Andrew Brown
Andrew Brown
10 years ago

Sara MacVane, I am perfectly happy to accept that there are people who dislike the widespread public displays of crucifixes in Italy, and that in some cases this dislike is reasonable and well-founded. Politics is full of clashes like that, and in a democratic country you can vote for a party which promises to do something about it.

What I have argued against is the proposition that this is violation of the opponents’ *human rights*, and that the remedy for the situation is not political but an appeal to the ECHR. It is that claim which I describe as fanatical.

H. E. Baber
10 years ago

Being an American, this debate drives me up the wall. Here in the US we are legally forbidden to display innocuous, cultural religious symbols on public property. But, as the most religious affluent Western nation in the world, we support the socially conservative “values” of evangelical Christians and will not elect anyone to high political office unless he professes religious belief and ends all speeches with “God bless America.”

10 years ago


I don’t remember if you linked to Professor Joseph Weiler’s (an American Orthodox Jew) June 30 testimony before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, on behalf of the nations that intervened in favour of Italy against Ms. Soile Lautsi, regarding the exposition of crucifixes in public schools in Italy.

Sara MacVane
Sara MacVane
10 years ago

@Andrew Brown: Laws are made by majorities, whereas often we need to make sure that minorities have their rights protected. Maybe it is because I am an American informed by the civil rights movement, but without Brown v the school board of Topeka Kansas, we would never have had a Black president. When his parents married, half the states in the USA prohibited marriage between blacks and whites (whatever those non-definitions meant to the people in power). I think it is often judicial decisions based on constitutional claims which guarantee civil rights, not majority votes in favour of single laws.

Laurence Roberts
Laurence Roberts
10 years ago

I think it is often judicial decisions based on constitutional claims which guarantee civil rights, not majority votes in favour of single laws.

Posted by: Sara MacVane on Saturday, 26 March 2011 at 9:56am GMT

What an important point this is.

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