The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recently heard a case that could decide the future of the public expression of Christianity in Europe.
Last year, a lower human-rights court ruled that Italy’s placement of crucifixes in the classrooms of public schools violated the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantee the right to education and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Italy appealed, joined by 10 other European nations. The Grand Chamber is expected to render its decision later this year.
The case explicitly confronts the central issue facing Europe: whether it will acknowledge its Christian heritage, or surrender to a false “neutrality” that really means uniform submission to a certain understanding of secularization. Pope Benedict XVI has sounded this theme repeatedly, advising Europe not to forget its roots. In a recent address, he stated that “Modern culture, particularly in Europe, runs the risk of amnesia, of forgetting and thus abandoning the extraordinary heritage aroused and inspired by Christian faith, which is the essential framework of the culture of Europe, and not only of Europe.”
New York University law professor Joseph Weiler, who happens to be Jewish, argued on behalf of eight countries granted the right to intervene for retaining the crucifixes. He pointed out that different European countries deal with their religious heritage in different ways. France, for example, has a strong tradition of what is called laicité, which treats religion as a strictly private matter. Italy and other countries handle their religious heritage in a more public way, without infringing on the rights of nonbelievers. The imposition of a uniform vision of secularity — which would deny to European countries the particular expression of their religious traditions — is unjust and contrary to the Convention of Human Rights.
The crucifixes in Italian classrooms are a reminder of that heritage, Weiler argued. Such expression does not affect the secular curriculum or its adherence to religious freedom. But to deny the fact that Italy is mostly Christian, or that its Christian past still informs its national character, would be to deny history and logic. Indeed, the lower court acknowledged that Catholicism was both the majority religion in Italy and that placement of the crucifixes was accomplished in part through the political process “by the need for compromise with political parties of Christian inspiration.”
However, the lower court went on, crucifixes in public classrooms infringed the rights of religious freedom because they are incompatible with the “state’s duty to respect neutrality in the exercise of public authority, particularly in the field of education.” The court, remarkably, further opined that the presence of crucifixes in public classrooms was somehow incompatible with fostering “the habit of critical thought” among students.
While there is no dispute that the Italian state should be, and in fact is, neutral in matters of religion, this case risks making a fundamental mistake. There is no question that nonbelievers are being forced to believe, only that the minority might feel that the state somehow supports Christianity against other religions. But if the Grand Chamber affirms the lower court, the majority of Italians, who are Christian, will see crucifixes removed from the classroom. This, too, will send a message: that the European Court of Human Rights believes that their religion is somehow too dangerous.
This case brings to light exactly the risk against which Benedict has warned. On the one hand, the secular European human-rights courts feel free to disregard two millennia of history of Italy as a Christian nation, even though there was no actual harm shown in this case. Rather, the court relies on an abstract definition of “rights” that trumps not only history but also political compromise. The thrust of the plaintiff’s case was essentially that her children might feel uncomfortable or pressured by the presence of the crucifixes, even though there was no religious instruction in the schools. A defeat for Italy here will open the way — as it has in the United States — for an assault on any accommodation the state makes to religious groups.
But on the other hand, Christians too should be wary of crucifixes in the classroom, for their own reasons. Italy was left to argue that the crucifix is a cultural symbol, one by this point devoid of religious significance. Even some Church leaders defended the crucifixes on these grounds. But this position is simply another version of the “amnesia” of which Pope Benedict warns. The crucifix is a “sign of contradiction,” indeed, of a revolutionary view of the human person. To reduce it to a mere cultural symbol or adjunct to the state is to grant the point the secularists want to make: If it has no deeper meaning, why have it?
This case may prove a flash point in the religious history of Europe and should, in any event, cause the Church to heed Benedict’s call to remember.
Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.