fredag 18 mars 2011

The Lautsi case - in the flickering light of secularism



Ms. Soile Lautsi is the mother of two boys. During their education in Italian public schools the boys were exposed to crucifixes being displayed in their classroom as was also the case in all other classrooms. When in 2002, Ms. Lautsi’s husband asked the school’s governors whether they could agree to have the crucifixes removed, they decided not to do so.

Ms. Lautsi then filed a complaint with the Italian Administrative Court complaining of an infringement of the principle of secularism, relying in that regard on various Articles of the Italian Constitution.

Well before the Court had the time to consider the case the Minister of Education instructed the competent services to oblige all school governors to ensure the presence of crucifixes in all classrooms.

Three years later, in March 2005, the Administrative Court dismissed the case partly based on its view that the crucifix should be considered a symbol of a value system underpinning the secular nature of the Italian State and its Constitution.

Ms. Lautsi then brought the case to the Supreme Administrative Court, which in 2006, held that the crucifix was a symbol that reflected the remarkable sources of the values that defined secularism in the State's present legal order. Thus, when displayed in classrooms, the crucifix could fulfil – even distinct from the religious perspective to which it specifically referred – a highly educational symbolic function, irrespective of the religion professed by the pupils.

Unbroken by these arguments put forth by the Administrative Courts, Ms. Lautsi then brought her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Chamber to which the case had been referred ruled in November 2009 that the hanging of crucifixes in classrooms of public schools did, indeed, constitute a violation of integral parts of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This judgement caused an up-roar of sentiments from Catholic politicians and other Catholics in Austria, some of them vehemently stating that they would not remove any crucifixes from any classrooms for any reason and under no circumstances, so help them God.

The State of Italy, which had lost the case, challenged the ECHR judgment by asking in January 2010 that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court. Several other states were allowed to intervene before the Grand Chamber in favour of Italy. A small number of Catholic and non-Catholic NGOs were also allowed to intervene in favour of one or the other parties.

At the very outset of its deliberations, the Court observed that the only question before it was concerning the compatibility of the presence of crucifixes in Italian State-school classrooms with certain Articles of the European Convention. Thus, it was not required for the Court to rule on the compatibility of the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms with the principle of secularism as enshrined in Italian law.

Upon careful examination of the preceeding procedures and several similar court cases, the Court ruled on 18 March 2011 by fifteen votes to two, that the contested display of crucifixes in public schools was not in violation of the Convention.


1. The judgement is based on a legal interpretation of certain Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols. As the question as to whether the display of crucifixes in classrooms is compatible with secularism - a principle embraced by many believers and non-believers alike - was not considered by the Court, this question remains an important issue of primarily political and non-legal nature.

2. The display of crucifixes in public schools does not violate the Convention, neither does their removal. Thus, there is ample room for all those who believe in the principles of secularism to achieve the desired result by persuasion rather than through legal process.

3. Just as much as a crucifix is a religious symbol, the matter before the Court was a symbolic issue. The real and more important issue is the special extra-parliamentary impact that religious groups, i.e. various kinds of Christians and Muslims and other believers, have on the conduct of political affairs in several countries. This practice is more widespread and accepted by the population in some countries than in others. Speaking from my own experience, there are, for instance, vast differences in this regard between Austria and Sweden.

4. There are no crucifixes displayed on the walls of Swedish public schools, because most people would not like that. In Austria, it is the other way around, because a large amount of the Austrian people want it. In Sweden, the majority of the people believe that the state should remain neutral with regard to religions and that these should not have any undemocratic influence on how the country is governed. In Austria, it is the other way around, because of historic legally binding relations with the Catholic Church that guarantee a continued Catholic education of school children, irrespective of whether crucifixes are displayed in the classrooms or not, which is of much less importance than the educational privileges, which were long ago bestowed on the Catholic church and are still retained.

5. Admittedly, the judgement just pronounced by the Grand Chamber of the ECHR is not particularly helpful for those who wish to promote a secular world view, but more importantly, the best way to make it materialise is by way of convincing our fellow citizens of our view that a secular democratic society is preferable in comparison with any society where the democracy and the rule of law are tampered with through religious infiltration, interference, intimidation and indoctrination.

7 kommentarer:

Emil Ems sa...

I agree with you on this one, Hans Christian, even if I seriously doubt that any other Austrian would agree with you!

HC sa...

Obviously, you have not heard about the initiative taken by a group of freethinkers, humanists and others to request a public referendum on the abolition of church privileges. As you know German, you can read more about it at this link

More and more Austrians are now turning their backs at the Catholic church, primarily due to the revelations of sexual abuses of children within the church, but not only. Some 80,000 left the church in 2010.

HC sa...

This is a comment received from Sheila Rosenthal:

Thank you for your comparative comments in connection with the subject of the Lautsi case, which I have read about in the Austrian papers. Having grown up and gone to school in the secular USA, I very much value the division between state and religion such as it exists both in the USA and in Sweden and I can only agree fully with your expressed comments.

Anonym sa...

It is always funny to learn that secularism is only acceptable when it can oppress religious views. In other cases, religious views are labeled oppressive. I guess, most people with secular views may need a reality check.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Dear Anonymous,

In response to your comment I wish to clarify that the idea of secularism is not to oppress religions but that the state and all its public authorities and institutions ought to remain neutral with respect to different religions and other life-stances. This is very much in line with the generally accepted principle of freedom of religion and beliefs of which none should be advantaged or disadvantaged in relation to any of the others.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

This is a comment provided by my previous colleague Ubalda Fritze:

Dear Hans Christian,

Regarding Mr Emil E.’s comment expressing his doubts that any other Austrian would agree with you, I just wanted to confirm that he is right (concerning me!). I already read the Lautsi case in the newspapers, and was actually happy to read that the case had been lost by Mr and Ms Lautsi.

If I were to live in Istanbul, I could not expect the Muezzins to stop singing in the early morning.

Hans Christian Cars sa...

Dear Ubalda,

What an undivided pleasure to be invited to argue with you even after my retirement. On this very odd occasion I am, however, sad to admit that for once I am sorry you are happy.

What is this Catholic craving for crucifixes in public school buildings other than a deliberate abuse of religious power to impress upon small children, who may not even be able yet to read and write, that there school is Catholic territory. It is obvious to anyone, because the Catholic church has left its marks on the walls.

This practice is hardly conducive to an evironment in which students are encouraged to freely reflect upon the different virtues of various religions and other life stances. This has also never been the intention of the Catholic church throughout any part of its long and troubled history, rather the contrary. The message conveyed to all students by the ostentative display of crucifixes in their classrooms, as a single religious symbol, is clear and unequivocal – observe the cross and close your mind to any other kind of beliefs, because Catholicism is the religion supported by the Government.

Even and perhaps especially very young children will be more than likely to take in this message, which has little to do with education but a lot with indoctrination.

It is regrettable that so many fail to see the virtues of secularism by which the state and all its public authorities and institutions remain neutral with respect to different religions and other life-stances in the interest of freedom, not least of the freedom of religion itself but also of other non-religious beliefs.

By the way, to the best of my knowledge the Muezzins in Istanbul are not singing in the schools in the early mornings but from buildings sacred to them – the minarets. Paradoxically as it may seem, as islam is often associated with Iranian ayatollahs and religious oppression, Turkey is actually quite a secularised society, even much more so than Austria. – Mind you Ubalda, drinking coffee may not be the only habit worth taking over from Turkey.