A Tale of Two Courts – Part three: The Track of a Storm

As I mentioned in the previous post the Grand Chamber overturned the earlier decision. The decision of the Grand Chamber was, however, quite contradictory. The Court considered that “the crucifix is above all a religious symbol. The domestic courts came to the same conclusion and in any event the Government have not contested this. The question whether the crucifix is charged with any other meaning beyond its religious symbolism is not decisive at this stage of the Court’s reasoning”.

Nonetheless, in the next paragraph the decision declares: “there is no evidence before the Court that the display of a religious symbol on classroom walls may have an influence on pupils and so it cannot reasonably be asserted that it does or does not have an effect on young persons whose convictions are still in the process of being formed (…) furthermore, a crucifix on a wall  is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in  the Court’s view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality. It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities”.

The fact is that the Court already has judged favouring the idea that religious symbols in school do influence students in another case. The Dahlab case is an example of it. Dahlab was a Muslim teacher that was prohibited to teach wearing a headscarf. In this case the Court decided “to protect the religious beliefs of the pupils and their parents and to apply the principle of denominational neutrality in schools enshrined in domestic law”.  The Grand Chamber said the cases were entirely different but actually they are not in principle, since both of them concern the display of symbols by authorities (the school or a teacher). We cannot measure for sure how much a crucifix would affect children, but it probably affects in a positive or negative way.

Another point that is missing in the discussion of the Court is the necessity of the display. If there is no influence from the crucifix what is the point in keeping it hanging in every classroom of public schools? If there is no inspiration given by the crucifix the government should just get rid of it and it would not make a difference. The only reason to display the crucifix is, in my opinion, to influence the pupils. If this is not the reason then the crucifix is nothing more than a decorative object, an idea that is demeaning for the Christian faith.

The result was that the Grand Chamber found, by 15 votes to 2, no violation of Article 2 of Protocol 1. The Court also concluded that no further issue arose under Article 9 and that there was no cause to examine the case under Article 14. In addition to this, the Court decided that: “whether crucifixes should be present in classrooms was, in principle, a matter falling within the margin of appreciation of the State, particularly where there was no European consensus.” In other words, it is no longer the business of the Court to judge if the State can display religious symbols in classrooms or not.

The consequences of the Grand Chamber ruling is that citizens of other countries can now claim the display of religious symbols in classrooms of public schools. Other countries that have the same policy on displaying symbols do not need to review their policies. The decision is binding on all 47 Council of Europe member states. Italy defended that this is a victory for the ideal of inclusive neutrality and not the secularist neutrality, which is exclusive and antireligious according to the Italian Government. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand how a fascist decree, that provides the crucifix must form part of the “necessary equipment and supplies in school classrooms,” is neutral.

Finally, a very personal thought about state and religion. I believe that Christianity and other religions or beliefs depend on an act of faith, which is impossible for an institution to do. I am not the only one who thinks in this way, French philosopher Jacques Ellul once affirmed that : “I have shown elsewhere that it is impossible for the state or society or an institution to be Christian. Since being Christian presupposes an act of faith, it is plainly impossible for an abstraction like the state”[1]. Italy is not officially a Christian state but in practice it is. In my opinion, the attempt of a State to impose religion on its inhabitants is nothing but subversion of a belief system. The crucifix, when imposed, can become an oppressive symbol, which is not the religious meaning of the cross. In Italy, as in many other places, the cultural/traditional meaning has become bigger than the spiritual/religious meaning. In other words, the traditional crucifix has become more powerful than the religious cross. Paraphrasing Dickens in a Tale of Two Cities, the crucifix “superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.”[2]

[1] ELLUL, Jacques. Anarchy and Christianity. Grand Rapids. 1980. p. 28.

[2] DICKENS, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. p. 484.

Ps: I would like to thank Natalie for proofreading the post and providing her comments.

4 Responses to “A Tale of Two Courts – Part three: The Track of a Storm”
  1. Marco says:

    Interesting series!

    I am not sure if claiming that the crucifix is a symbol of oppressive tradtition and that the cross is a symbol faith is entirely fair towards the catholic church. That is, if I understood you correctly. Another interesting dilemma that arises from your argumentation is that if you use the quote from Ellul to prove that a state cannot be “christian” it follows that the church cannot be “christian” either, because it is also an abstraction. This can prove problematic to us christians. Do you propose that christians abandon all types of hierarchy and organisation?

    I think the case is much more complicated than you make it up to be, it is not as simple as that the state is imposing religion on defenceless kids. There problem, as I see it, is where we should draw the line, In almost every single city in the world there is a religious temple of somekind that towers above us. From Saint Peters Basillica in Rome and the Peruvudaiyaar Temple in India to the Turku Cathedral in Finland. Does the presence of these buildings oppress? Furthermore, should I be allowed, if I were to become a teacher, to carry a cross around my neck?

    I loved your series on this case, and I feel a little bad for the critique and the hard questions. But in my opinion the best kind of text is the kind that makes others think, and here you have succeeded my friend!


    • Thiago Alves says:

      Hi Marco,

      Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate when people spend time to comment my posts. Please, feel free to write your comments and disagree to what is written. I am going to try to answer all your questions, please write again if some of the answers are not clear.

      I can say that you partly understood my last quote. What I wrote was that the crucifix can become a symbol of oppression when imposed. In the same way I believe that the Muslim headscarf is oppressive if it is imposed on women. I believe the symbols itself carry amazing values, but this does not justify an obligation to display them. Moreover, the last paragraph is a very personal opinion. Even my blogmates can disagree with it. I am not trying to establish how Christian should look at the crucifix, not even trying to raise the theological issue whether the Catholic crucifix is better than a Protestant cross. My point is that any religious symbol should be forced by the State in its inhabitants.

      Second question is about Ellul. I really like Ellul and I respect his opinion since he was a professor of history and sociology of institutions in the Law faculty at the University of Bordeux. What he means is that a church as a building cannot profess any faith. However, Ellul’s point of view was never mainstream and he said he was not engaged in proselytism. In the same way, I don’t propose that Christians should do this or that. At least I wouldn’t do it in this blog. I just explained my point of view. It would be extremely wrong of me if I would say what Christians should think. The only thing I mentioned that Christians in general would be unhappy is the idea, that was defended by the Court, that the symbol does not influence anyone. I think in this way the Court belittled the meaning of the religious symbol, but this is also a personal thought.

      Now the third question is very common. I had a simple approach to the theme because even this blog being a human rights blog I wish that ordinary people read and reflect upon these topics. It is always a hard task to balance between a legal perspective and something that makes sense for those who are not studying Law. I want to bring the discussion to a higher level, but at the same time not to high that the community cannot use it for anything. But I must say that I am working in an article that has much more legal arguments and that I chose not to use them in these posts.

      Now to your question, there are three situations in your second paragraph. First, the issue of State imposing religion on children; second, public display of symbols; and third the display by human beings. I believe that human beings have the right to manifest their beliefs and this manifestation should be limited just in cases prescribed by law. You can check the limitations under Article 9(2) of the ECHR. So I believe you should have this freedom. What happens in Italy is that there is a law that demands that all schools must have a crucifix. Again, there is an imposition by the State that every student must look up to a crucifix in her or his classroom. This obligation I think is wrong and it is here that I draw the line. People should be free to build their temples and to display their religious symbols, but I would disagree if the State would impose that people must attend a church or a mosque or a pagoda. My point is that people should have freedom to decide their beliefs and they should learn to appreciate a multicultural setting. Nevertheless, it is hard for me to see how a unilateral decision of a State in displaying one particular religious symbol can help students to be more receptive to other cultures.

      As I said before, please let me know if something is unclear and if possible invite your friends to follow the blog here or on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Human-Rights-Forum/117240005009205.

      All the best


  2. Rico says:

    Hey Thiago! Congratulations on the blog, very cool, it’s a great way to conscientization and information.
    Regarding this matter, I fully agree that we should fight for a freedom of expression in every sphere of society. We know what logic is beneficial to citizens and fight for it!
    But the requirement of anything revolt, which offends freedom.
    I believe much more in conscientization and one share, but no pressure!

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