Will crucifixes stay on the wall?

The ruling of the European Court of Human Rights: Presence of crucifixes in the school violated a child’s right to freedom of religion.


Would you say the ruling could eventually force a Europe or EU-wide review of the use of religious symbols in all state-run school and offices?


Sylvie Langlaude, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

The Lautsi case is an important judgment by the European Court of Human Rights. In it, it emphasises the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their religious and philosophical convictions, the right of school children to believe or not to believe, as well as the duty of the state to be confessionally neutral in a situation where school attendance is compulsory.

I think it is important to stress the context of the judgment. The decision was about the display of the crucifix in state schools, not in offices or other public areas. Therefore, it is unlikely that the decision will lead to a EU-wide review of the use of religious symbols in all state-run offices – the judgment not being about the display of religious symbols per se in public areas.

As for the display of religious symbols in schools, the judgment is likely to have more of an impact. On a case-by-basis, it would be necessary to determine whether each religious symbol is a ‘powerful external symbol’ and whether it leads to an education that lacks pluralism. In addition, the judgment is restricted to state schools and doesn’t apply to schools with a religious ethos.

Neil Addison, National Director, Thomas More Legal Centre

I see this decision as having extremely serious implications for European Religious Freedom, Culture and History. The European Court of Human Rights has gone far beyond its powers in making this decision which will apply to all European Countries not just Italy.

To suggest that the mere display of a religious symbol, such as a crucifix, infringes the philosophical rights of an atheist or secularist shows no respect for idea of mutual tolerance which was the founding principle of the European Convention.  In addition it shows no respect for the idea of freedom for Countries to make their own choices in accordance with their own history and traditions.

What the Court has done is to impose the French model of secularism on the whole of Europe and it has no right to do so.  It is a perversion of Human Rights and is a dangerous undermining of the rights of European nations to have their own character and distinctive traditions.

Julian Rivers, Professor of Jurisprudence and Warden of Wills Hall, University of Bristol

I have not yet been able to read an English translation of the judgment, but as far as I can see from the French, the court emphasised the vulnerable nature of children, particularly of religious minorities, and the duty of state neutrality in public educational institutions.

Since the focus of the Convention is on the rights of individuals and groups, it does not contain general statements of constitutional principle about the confessional commitment of any state. So long as rights are protected, a state can continue to have an established church or a confessional commitment.

However, in recent years the Court has decided cases which impose greater restrictions on the ways in which in a state can express its historic religious heritage, particularly in the area of education (e.g. Folgero v Norway).

It is therefore hard to predict whether this should case should be restricted to the problem of vulnerable religious minority children in state-run schools, or whether it expresses a more general trend to secularise the state.

The Council of Europe/ECHR covers 47 member states, or the entirety of Europe. In any case, the Court has no power to initiate a general review. It is up to each state party to the Convention to consider whether its practices in this respect are compatible with the rights of all its citizens.

Anthony Bradney, Professor of Law, Keele University

The Court’s judgement in Lautis v Italy is so far only available in French. However so far as I can see there are two limitations to its application.  First the European Court of Human Rights’ judgements are not directly applicable in all countries that are signatories to the Convention. This is so, for example, in the case of the United Kingdom.  If someone in the United Kingdom believed the case was relevant to a school their child was attending they would either need to take a separate case to the European Court of Human Rights, whose judgement the British government would then probably obey although under domestic law they are not obliged to do so, or they could bring an action before the British courts under the Human Rights Act 1998 whose contents are modelled on the European Convention.  However whilst the British courts are bound to consider judgements of the European Court when looking at Human Rights Act cases they are not obliged to follow them.  Secondly so far as I can see the European Court’s judgement applies only to state schools.  It does not seem to apply to private, independent schools even if they provide full-time education for their pupils. I am not clear whether or not the judgement applies to schools that have an independent religious foundation but receive partial state support.


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