Rights court backs Italy over school crucifix display
The European Court of Human Rights ruled Friday that displaying crucifixes in schools in Italy did not breach the rights of non-Catholic families, overturning a previous decision.
The court initially ruled in November 2009 that the display of crucifixes in Italian schools breached the rights of non-Catholics, drawing howls of anger from Church and political leaders in the staunchly Roman Catholic country.
In its ruling passed by 15 votes to two, the court said that "while the crucifix was above all a religious symbol, there was no evidence before the court that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils".
The case was brought by Italian mother Soile Lautsi, whose two children attended a state school near Venice.
She was unhappy crucifixes were present in every classroom and complained to the school.
After education chiefs refused to remove the crosses, she spent several years fighting the decision through the Italian courts before taking the case to the Strasbourg court.
In November 2009, the court had ruled that displaying the cross was contrary to the right of parents to educate their children in line with their convictions and to "the right of children to freedom of religion and thought."
But on appeal the judges voted overwhelmingly that "states enjoyed a margin of appreciation in their efforts to reconcile the exercise of the functions they assumed in relation to education and teaching with respect for the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
"The Court therefore had a duty in principle to respect the states' decisions in those matters, including the place they accorded to religion, provided that those decisions did not lead to a form of indoctrination," it continued
"Accordingly, the decision whether crucifixes should be present in classrooms was, in principle, a matter falling within the margin of appreciation of the state, particularly where there was no European consensus."
The court said the effects of the greater visibility which the presence of the crucifix gave to Christianity in schools needed to be further placed in perspective.
The presence of crucifixes was not associated with compulsory teaching about Christianity.
The court said there was nothing to suggest that the authorities were intolerant of pupils who believed in other religions, were non-believers or who held non-religious philosophical convictions.
In addition, the applicants had not asserted that the presence of the crucifix in classrooms had encouraged the development of teaching practices with a proselytising tendency.
Catholicism has not been the state religion in Italy since 1984 but a decree dating from the 1930s Fascist area requiring the presence of a crucifix in schools was never revoked.
© 2011 AFP