ECHR Hears Crucifix Case

By ECLJ1277917573717

(Strasbourg, France)

Click to view more photos from the Grand ChamberToday at the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) 17 judges, including Jean-Paul Costa, president of the Court, witnessed an extraordinary hearing on the “Italian Crucifix Case”, Lautsi v. Italy (application no. 30814/06), regarding Italy’s right to display crucifixes in its public school classrooms.  

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) was deeply involved in the preparation of this hearing and was officially third party with 79 European members of parliaments. The ECLJ submitted written observations (available here) to the Court.

During the proceedings before the “Grand Chamber”, Soile Lautsi’s legal counsel argued in favor of “secularism”, whereas the Italian Government argued in defense of religious freedom and its right to express its unique heritage and identity through the display of crucifixes in state funded schools. The Italian Government made the point that the mere presence of a symbol could in no way be construed as proselytism or indoctrination, and thus did not infringe the children’s right to freedom of conscience, much less that of the children’s parents.

The Italian counsel, Nicola Lettieri, stated: “The only common ground in Europe regarding relationship between state and Church is the distinction and autonomy in temporal and spiritual maters”. This means that Italy, like England, France, or any Member State, has the freedom to choose whether to privilege a certain religion, like Christianity, as long all citizens have the right of freedom of religion---to believe or not to believe.

Ms. Lautsi’s legal counsel, on the other hand, quoted Voltaire, as he presented on his view of total secularism and stated that he considered the presence of the crucifix to be an expression of the “tyranny of the majority”.

An important aspect of the hearing occured when Joseph Weiler, Professor of Law of New York University School of Law, spoke on behalf of the numerous Member States participating in the case as Amicus curiae in defense of the crucifix.

In his pleadings, Professor Weiler argued:

The message of tolerance towards the other should not be translated into a message of intolerance towards one’s own identity.”

Weiler continued substantially noting that, we live in a period in which, precisely because of greater tolerance, patterns of migration within Europe and from without Europe, the democratic cohesion of society is dependent on the ability to uphold national symbols around which all society can coalesce. It would be a strange result, if, in this scenario, as a result of the host State’s tolerance in opening its border to such migration, and fully respecting in its positive law the freedom of religion of all sections of society as well as their freedom from religion, had to abandon national symbols, and strip from its cultural identity, any symbol which also had a religious significance, even in circumstances where the majority of its population, which may be secular, accept such because of its historical significance.

Wieler insisted that tolerance toward one view should not lead to intolerance against others. He also explained that part of what makes Europe so rich and unique is its ability to have on the one hand respect for religious freedom of all, and on the other, a cultivation of its diverse identities. Ms. Soile Lautsi, however, wants the Court to affirm that “laicite” (legally required secularism in the public sphere) is required in order to respect religious freedom.

The Court will begin its deliberation today as to whether Ms. Soile Lautsi’s rights to education (Article 2 of Protocol 1) and freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9) were violated. The decision, however, will not be released until later, likely the fall, or even as late as the end of the year.

The ECLJ is hopeful that the Court understood that the right of nonbelievers not to believe cannot eclipse the rights of believers (i.e., that “laicite” is not required by the Convention). The ECLJ is also confident that the Court will understand that it cannot and should not require a state to renounce its own deep identity in the name of tolerance and human rights philosophy. “Real pluralism would start with respect between the countries,” according to Gregor Puppinck, Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice. “Contrary to Ms. Lautsi’s legal counsel’s position, “Laicite” is not a requirement from the Convention.” Puppinck noted.

The ECLJ also recognizes the fact that the Italian representative recalled that protection of religious freedom and the rights of the parents have been affirmed in the Convention since the time of the Communist regimes that it was created to protect against. This explains again, as noted by the Italian government, why those countries that intervened as third parties are nations that have greatly suffered under atheist regimes. The Convention, with its protection of fundamental rights, was created to oppose atheist regimes. Therefore, it is very ironic and dangerous that religious freedom is being used to impose again official atheism on society, to pretend to protect religious freedom by suppressing religion from society. In fact, it is a “historical reversal”, as noticed Dr Puppinck.

It is interesting to note that in total there were 14 Member States of the Council of Europe opposing the original decision and supporting Italy. Professor Weiler spoke on behalf of these intervening member states: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, The Russian Federation, and San-Marino. In addition to those ten, officially participating in the case, other States have given their official support towards the crucifix, among them: Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, and Serbia. The amount of participation from intervening member States is unprecedented, demonstrating the magnitude of this case for all of Europe.

You can find the ECHR Press Release, here. The hearing is available on the Court’s Internet site (http://www.echr.coe.int).

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) is an international law firm focusing on the protection of human rights and religious freedom in Europe and worldwide.  The ECLJ is affiliated with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which focuses on protecting religious freedom in the United States. Attorneys for the ECLJ have served as counsel in numerous cases before the European Court of Human Rights.  Additionally, the ECLJ has special Consultative Status with ECOSOC of the United Nations, and is accredited to the European Parliament.