A Tale of Two Courts – Part two: The Reactions to the Lautsi v. Italy Chamber Judgment

As I said in the previous post, it seems evident that there is a violation of the right to freedom of religion in the Lautsi case. Primary education is compulsory in Italy; therefore the kids are exposed daily to a religious symbol that can be against their beliefs. It is important to remember that the right to freedom of religion protects: “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief”[1]. Moreover, the Article 2 of the Protocol 1 of the ECHR states that: “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions”. It is clear that the rights of the children and of the parents were violated in the Lautsi case. Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, the decision was not well received in Europe.

The reaction against the outcome of the Chamber judgement was strong. The Vatican said it was shocked by the ruling, calling it “wrong and myopic” to exclude the crucifix from education. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the European court had no right intervening in such a profoundly Italian matter. Personally, I don’t understand the logic used in these comments. It is obvious that the European Court has the right to intervene. Italy is a member of the Council of Europe and has ratified the ECHR and its Protocol, so the Court has the right to interfere in “Italian matters” and its decisions are binding.

According to BBC, a similar reaction came from politicians in Italy. Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, for instance, said the crucifix was a “symbol of our tradition”, and not a mark of Catholicism. One government minister called the ruling “shameful”, while another said that Europe was forgetting its Christian heritage. As we can see, the responses from politician were contradictory. Some politicians said that the cross is not a religious symbol and some said it is. The cultural argument used by the government to display crosses is not well known even among politicians that were against the banning of the religious symbols in schools. In my opinion, most of these reactions are just a way to get support from the masses and I believe that for many politicians the cross is nothing more than a good luck charm.

The controversial Lautsi case had an unprecedented number of third-party interventions, 30 altogether (17 supporting Italy and 13 supporting Lautsi). An Amicus Brief of the Alliance Defense Fund is an example of engaged third-party supporting Italy. They said in their memorandum: “”First, the judgment in Lautsi v. Italy raises several serious questions affecting the interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights by creating inconsistencies among Protocol 1, Article 2 judgments and decisions. Second, the case wrongly substitutes the issue of separation of church and state with the issue of parental rights in education. Third, a serious issue of general importance arises with regard to the overreaching of the Second Section into matters that fall within the margin of appreciation of Member States under the principle of respect for cultural sovereignty. Fourth, the scope of the instant decision has wide reaching consequences for numerous Member States who also have symbols of their Christian heritage within public schools. Fifth, the judgment raises questions as to the integrity of moral damages awards where no real damage is suffered by the applicant.” While their criticism is more rational than the previous ones it exposes mainly secondary issues.

The European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics was a third-party supporting the Applicant and they collect some facts about the consequences of the judgment:

• The Radical Party was the only party supporting the ruling; their headquarters were attacked by neo-nazis and crucifixes were thrown and fixed on the walls;

• The Lautsi-Albertin family was threatened: after the judgment the children were beaten up in school, and crosses were painted on their house;

• The Northern League MP and mayor of Cittadella (a town close to Albano, where the Lautsi-Albertin family lives) put up posters with the faces of the family with “wanted” written on it

• The Italian minister of defence, Ignazio La Russa, said on TV: “Anyway, we won’t take away the crucifix! They can die! The crucifix will remain in all school’s rooms, in all public rooms! They can die! They can die! Them and those fake international organization that count for nothing!”

It is also important to emphasize that the issue is not only about one school but the whole Italian public school system, since there was fascist decree from 1924 that prescribed the display of crucifix in classrooms. There are also other countries with similar laws prescribing religious symbols in the premises of public schools.

As expected, the Italian government requested a Grand Chamber hearing, which took place on 20 July 2010. The Grand Chamber judgement is fundamental to decide if the display of religious symbols in classrooms is a violation to human rights or not, since its decision is binding on all members of the Council of Europe. The Grand Chamber changed the decision of the Chamber and this will be the topic that will be analysed in the next post.

[1] UN Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 22.


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