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.