The initial judgement, which held that European states have "a duty to uphold confessional neutrality in public education, where school attendance is compulsory regardless of religion", was taken by a panel of seven judges after a mother, Soile Lautsi, pursued the case on the basis of her children's rights to be educated according to her non-religious beliefs. The ECHR ruled that right was protected by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Subsequently, Italy, with the support of the Vatican, asked for the case to be referred to the 17-judge Grand Chamber of the ECHR, and was backed by ten other Catholic and Orthodox states (the European Humanist Federation refer to them as a "Holy Alliance"), along with 38 right-wing members of the European Parliament. Today's judgement, which has taken nine months following the court hearing last June, gives states a larger "margin of appreciation" in the interpretation of human rights than previously thought, which the EHF say gives them control "not only over how but even whether they protect some human rights". This, argue humanists and secularists, is worrying, as it "marks a retreat from universal human rights, especially for matters relating to sensitive topics – such as wearing religious symbols or the right to reproductive health – on which individual states stand out against the broad consensus in Europe".
Perhaps the one consolation for humanists is that the court didn't accept Italy's claim that the cross is not a religious symbol, but rather an "ethical symbol" that:
"evoked . . . non-violence, . . . the primacy of the individual over the group and the importance of freedom of choice, the separation of politics from religion. . . [carrying] a humanist message which could be read independently of its religious dimension . . . it was perfectly compatible with secularism and . . . could be perceived as devoid of religious significance."Responding to the judgement, which can be read in full here, David Pollock of the EHF said:
“This highly regrettable judgement retreats from the clarity of the initial ruling that the State and its institutions must be impartial, not favouring one religion or belief over another. This principle is particularly important when the State is addressing school pupils, since they are not only immature and impressionable but also a captive audience.
The idea that the crucifix is a harmless cultural item flies in the face of common sense. It is a portrayal of the execution of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion. It is a very powerful image and potentially a highly disturbing one to put before children. It is the image of a man being tortured to death. And the explanation for this horrific event is scarcely less disturbing: it is that he is being tortured because they, the children, are wicked and sinful. This is itself, of course, a religious doctrine, not a fact.
However, the ruling runs so contrary to the established direction of educational policy in the Council of Europe and the OSCE and to the proclaimed secularism of the EU that it is unlikely to have a lasting effect. Europeans are voting with their feet, leaving the churches and giving little value to religion.”Meanwhile, some religious commentators have welcomed the ruling. One writer who seems particularly pleased is Cranmer, the conservative Anglican blogger, who says:
"Aggressive secularists and atheist busybodies should not be free to demand that their sensitivities should trump everybody else's freedom of religion.As always, please do share your thoughts in the comments.
The Cross of Christ is symbolic not only of faith, but of the value system which underpins our culture and traditions, our law-making and jurisprudence. The Cross symbolises our civil values of tolerance, affirmation of our responsibilities and rights, the autonomy of our moral conscience vis-à-vis authority, human solidarity and the refusal of any form of discrimination. The Cross is the very foundation of Europe’s secular values."