Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Crucifixes in classrooms – the debate continues

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Over at the Guardian, CiF belief editor Andrew Brown welcomes last week's decision by the European Court of Human Rights to overturn an earlier decision against the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms, calling it "obviously a victory for common sense, which only fanatics would disapprove". He says that "the idea that human rights legislation should be used to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix is a profoundly totalitarian and superstitious perversion of one of our civilisation's best inventions", and concludes "a theologically neutral state takes no position on the question of which gods exist, or, if you like, which conceptions of God (if any) correspond to reality". Therefore, if I am following Brown's logic, it is not the role of governments or courts to determine which religious symbols children should or shouldn't be exposed to in schools, and on that basis the previous decision of the ECHR on crucifixes in schools was profoundly illiberal.

Although many secularists would disagree, I expect plenty would not find this position too unreasonable. Unfortunately Brown's argument with respect to the ECHR case misses the point – this was not about an individual instance of a school displaying a crucifix, and secularists campaigning all the way to the courts to ensure that no European school could do so ever again, but rather a piece of Italian legislation that requires a crucifix to be displayed in every classroom in every Italian school, regardless of whether the school is religious or not. Thus, this is not a case of "a theologically neutral state tak[ing] no position on the question of which gods exist", but the government of Italy (a state whose constitution has been secular since 1985) imposing a symbol of Catholicism on every classroom in the country.

Of course, there's clearly a whole argument to be had here about whether it would be right for the European courts to be able to impose a vision of secularism on individual states, but perhaps I'll leave that for others to tackle.
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