The European Court of Human Rights today ruled that Italian State schools may display crucifixes on classroom walls, overturning an earlier judgment to the contrary.
Today’s judgment lays down many important points of human rights law in favour of secularism, and it leaves open the possibility of further legal challenges about crucifixes in classrooms where the overall school environment is not secular.
The judgment highlights the obligation of States to convey school teaching in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, enabling pupils to develop a critical mind particularly with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere free of any proselytism.
The Court found that it is up to each State to decide how to treat this issue, as long as they do not exceed the limit of pursuing an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions.
In this particular case, because the Italian education system is already secular, with an overall school environment that respects all religions, and because the crucifix is not associated with compulsory teaching of Christianity, it found that the display of a crucifix could be seen as a passive symbol.
But these circumstances are not the case in Ireland, where most primary schools are not religiously neutral, but have a religious ethos that permeates the entire school day, and where the Catholic Church itself accepts that the right to opt out of this religious ethos is not always possible in practice.
Just last week the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination “noted with concern that the education system (in Ireland) is still largely denominational and is mainly dominated by the Catholic Church.” This is the fourth time in recent years that UN bodies have raised the issue of freedom of conscience in Irish schools.
Also significantly, the Court today rejected the argument by Italy that the crucifix is not a religious symbol, but is a cultural and ethical one. This is an important victory for secularism, as it prevents religious symbols from being introduced by stealth into secular environments.