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European Court of Human Rights; Italy: Crucifixes Allowed in Schools

(Apr. 7, 2011) The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in Strasbourg, handed down a decision on March 18, 2011, on the controversy over the presence of crucifixes in schools. As the headline of the Italian newspaper IL GIORNALE summed up the ruling, “Crucifixes in Schools, Italy Wins the Fight; Does Not Violate Human Rights.” (Crocifisso nelle scuole, l'Italia vince la battaglia. Non vìola i diritti umani, IL GIORNALE.IT (Mar. 18, 2011).)

The newspaper reports that this is a historic victory for Italy; after five years of controversy, the ECHR has decided that the country did not violate human rights by allowing the presence of crucifixes in the schools. The decision was approved on a 15-2 vote. The judges accepted the argument that there was no proof of the eventual influence on the students of this symbol of the Catholic religion. (Id.)

The ECHR decided that the presence of crucifixes in schoolrooms cannot be considered as indoctrination by the state, adding that the crucifix “is essentially a passive symbol,” and its influence over the students cannot be compared to the teaching activities of educators. (Id.)

According to the Minister of Foreign Relations of Italy, Franco Frattini, “[t]he popular sentiment of Europe has won; the decision interprets first of all the voice of the citizens in defense of their own values and of their own identity.” (Id.) The newspaper also quotes the comment of the Vatican Radio:

The victory today is not only of Italy but also of the other countries and of all those who considered it absurd to impose the removal of the crucifix from the school rooms. We have to remember that we are talking about the Court that is at the head of the European Council, i.e., the agency of 47 countries that is distinct from the [27-member] European Union. (Id.)

The case was first introduced at the ECHR on July 27, 2006, on behalf of Mrs. Sonia Lautsi, an Italian citizen born in Finland, who argued that the presence of the crucifix in the rooms of the public school attended by her children was an incompatible interference with the freedom of thought and the right to an education and learning according to the religious and philosophical convictions of the parents. The first decision of the Court, issued on November 9, 2009, was in substance favorable to Lautsi, stating that Italy had violated the basic norms of the freedom of thought, conviction, and religion; that decision created a wave of indignation in Italy. (Id.)

The Italian government then requested the dismissal of the decision of 2009 by the ECHR's Grand Chamber, stating that the decision as it stood was offensive to individual and collective religious freedom as recognized by the Italian state. The Grand Chamber accepted the request for dismissal, heard the parties, and issued the definitive decision in favor of Italy. Several countries participated as amici curiae before the ECHR in support of the Italian cause: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, the Russian Federation, and San Marino. (Id.)