A Tale of Two Courts – Part One: Understanding Lautsi v. Italy

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)

It is impressive how a book published 150 years ago can describe our age so precisely. We boast about the fact that we live in an age enlightened by science and concepts of social justice, however we forget that many people in developed countries are still claiming for freedom. The Lautsi case is, in a way, a tale of injustice. This post consists in three parts. In the first post I will provide the background for the case and the first judgement. The second post will analyse more deeply the reactions to the first judgment and the third will investigate the consequences of the Grand Chamber judgement.

The case is long but easy to understand. An Italian mother, Soile Lautsi, wanted to provide secular state education to her sons. Lautsi’s sons, Dataico and Sami Albertin, were studying in a State school in which a crucifix was attached to the wall of each classroom. First, in 2002 Lautsi asked the school to remove the crucifixes because she believed that they were contrary to the principle of secularism in accordance with which she wished to bring up her children. The school’s governor decided to keep the religious symbols in the classrooms. Lautsi took the issue to the Administrative Court, however, her argument was regarded to be ill-founded because the presence of crucifixes in the classroom had been based on royal decrees of 1924 and 1928. The Administrative Court referred the issue to the Constitutional Court, which found the question inadmissible, since the decrees were regulations rather than law subject to constitutional review.

On the 17 of March 2005 the Administrative Court dismissed the application lodged by Ms. Lautsi, holding that the provisions of the royal decrees in question were still in force and that the presence of crucifixes in state school classrooms did not breach the principle of the secular nature of the State, which was “part of the legal heritage of Europe and the western democracies.” The court took the view that the crucifix was a symbol of Christianity in general rather than of Catholicism alone, so that it served as a point of reference for other creeds. The court further identified the crucifix as a historical and cultural symbol, possessing an “identity-linked value” for the Italian people.

The applicant, relying upon Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (right to education) and Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion), and upon Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination), made application to the European Court of Human Rights in July 2006. In a Chamber Judgment of 3 November 2009, the Court held, unanimously, that there had been violations of each of these provisions. The Court decided that “these considerations entail an obligation on the State’s part to refrain from imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons are dependent on it or in places where they are particularly vulnerable. The schooling of children is a particularly sensitive area in which the compelling power of the State is imposed on minds which still lack (depending on the child’s level of maturity) the critical capacity which would enable them to keep their distance from the message derived from a preference manifested by the State in religious matters.”

In the decision, the Court also mentioned the defence of the State on the issue of multiculturalism and the cross, stating that: “The Court cannot see how the display in state-school classrooms of a symbol that it is reasonable to associate with Catholicism (the majority religion in Italy) could serve the educational pluralism which is essential for the preservation of “democratic society” within the Convention meaning of that term.” This was, in my opinion, a reasonable decision. It should be the most natural outcome of such issue, but not everybody understood it in this way. In the next post we will see some reactions to this judgement.

2 Responses to “A Tale of Two Courts – Part One: Understanding Lautsi v. Italy”
  1. stf says:

    look forward to reading the rest …

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  1. […]  issues that have been recently examined in this blog, such as voting rights for prisoners, crucifixes in classrooms and abortion rights. If you want to read the article, click […]

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