Big win for the Vatican in European crucifix case

by John L. Allen Jr.

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In a big win for the Vatican in terms of church/state relations in Europe, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has reversed an earlier ruling and upheld the right of Italy to display crucifixes in its public school classrooms.

Though the Vatican was not formally a party to the case, it strongly supported the position taken by Italy and a coalition of other European states, mostly drawn from the majority Orthodox regions of Eastern Europe, in defense of Italy’s right to have crucifixes in the classrooms.

The November 2009 ruling by the Court of Human Rights, which held that the display of crucifixes violated European standards of religious freedom, was widely seen in the Vatican as an indication that secular neutrality to religion in today’s Europe often shades off into overt hostility to religion.

Both the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, and the New York-based attorney who represented the coalition of states appealing the ruling, Joseph Weiler, today released statements, excerpts from which appear below.

Lombardi's statement was released in Italian, and appears below in an NCR translation.

Weiler’s involvement in the case attracted wide notice, in part because he is Jewish and argued that curbing Italy’s right to express its religious identity would be a blow not just to the Catholic church, but to religious freedom generally.

An NCR interview with Weiler in January, in which he discusses the crucifix case, can be found here.

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Vatican Statement

The sentence of the European Court for Human Rights on the obligatory exposition of the crucifix in Italian public school classrooms has been received with satisfaction on the part of the Holy See. It’s a responsible and historic decision, demonstrated by the result at which the Grand Chamber arrived after a deep study of the question. The Grand Chamber, in fact, overturned the initial ruling in every sense – a ruling which prompted not only an appeal by the Italian state, but also the support of numerous other European states, in a measure never before seen, and the adhesion of not a few non-governmental organizations, expressing the vast sentiments of populations.

It recognizes, therefore, at a highly authoritative and international juridical level, that the culture of human rights should not be opposed to the religious foundations of European civilization, to which Christianity has given an essential contribution. Moreover, it recognizes that, in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, it’s obligatory to guarantee to every state a margin of appreciation for the value of religious symbols in their own cultural history and national identity, and for the place of their exposition (as has also been confirmed recently by rulings from the supreme courts of some European nations.)

Otherwise, religious liberty would be paradoxically limited or even denied in the name of defending that liberty, ending by excluding every such expression from the public sphere. That would mean violating liberty itself, obscuring [a country’s] specific and legitimate identity. The court therefore says that the exposition of the crucifix is not a form of indoctrination, but the expression of the cultural and religious identity of countries of the Christian tradition.

The new ruling of the Grand Chamber is welcome also because it effectively contributes to reestablishing confidence in the European Court of Human Rights for a great number of Europeans, who are convinced and aware of the determining role of Christian values not only in their own history, but also in the construction of European unity and its culture of rights and freedom.

Joseph Weiler’s statement

I am cautiously satisfied with the outcome of the case, in which the Grand Chamber reversed the decision of the Chamber by 15 votes to 2, pending a more careful reading and evaluation of the Grand Chamber’s ruling and reasoning.

Overturning the decision represents a rejection of a ‘One Size Fits All’ Europe and a vindication of its pluralist tradition in which equal dignity is accorded to the constitutional choices of a France and a Britain, an Italy and a Sweden and the other myriad formulae for recognizing religious symbols in the public space. Europe is special in that it guarantees at the private level both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, but does not force its various Peoples to disown in its public spaces what for many is an important part of the history and identity of their States, a part recognized even by those who do not share the same religion or any religion at all.

It is this special combination of private and public liberties, reflecting a particular spirit of tolerance, which explains how in countries such as, say, Britain or Denmark to give but two examples, where there is an Established State Church no less – Anglican and Lutheran respectively – Catholics, Jews, Muslims and, of course, the many citizens who profess no religious faith, can be entirely ‘at home,’ play a full role in public life including the holding of the highest office, and feel it is ‘their country’ no less than anyone else. It is an important model for the world of which Europe can be justly proud.”

As regards the classroom, it falls in equal measure on those States who forbid any religious symbol on their classroom walls, and those who require it, to ensure that the prohibition or requirement are not misunderstood by the young members of our society. The prohibition of religious symbols should not be understood as a denigration of religion or religious people and the requirement of a religious symbol such as the cross, should not be understood as denigrating other religions or those who do not profess a religious faith at all. For the most part, this spirit is a contemporary European reality, Italy being a shining example.

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