Despite Court Ruling, Crucifixes in Italian Classrooms May Still Have a Prayer

By Adam Cassandra | June 2, 2010 | 5:29 PM EDT

In this April 9, 2006, file photo, a cameraman films a crucifix hanging from a wall of a classroom used as a polling station in Milan, Italy, during the country's general election. Last November, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools violates religious and education freedoms. (AP Photo/Giuseppe Aresu)

( – Thirty-two (32) members of the European Parliament (MEPs), represented by an American religious rights group, have intervened in a controversial European court decision to remove crucifixes from school classrooms across Italy. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last November that the presence of a crucifix in the classroom could be coercive and “disturbing” to students.
Last Thursday, the Grand Chamber of the court granted a request by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund to intervene as a third party on behalf of the MEPs -- from 11 different countries -- who say the court’s decision is “defective for a variety of reasons.”
The decision in the case, Lautsi v. Italy, sparked anger across Italy, with many viewing the court’s decision as an overreaching assault on Italy’s sovereignty and national identity.  The court held that state placement of the crucifixes violated the “right to education” and “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Alliance Defense Fund argued in a legal memo last November that, “The education protocol, whether taken alone or in conjunction with the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, does not guarantee a right to not be offended.”
“Additionally, the European Court of Human Rights does not deal directly with church and state relations. Indeed, it is not a violation of the Convention to have a State church or to show preference to a specific religious denomination in a Member State,” the memo stated.
Roman Catholicism ceased to be the official religion of Italy in 1984, but the Italian constitution establishes a special relationship with the Catholic Church. According to Article 7 of the document, “The State and the Catholic Church are independent and sovereign, each within its own sphere.  Their relations are governed by the Lateran Pacts. Changes to the Pacts that are accepted by both parties do not require the procedure for constitutional amendment.”
Roger Kiska, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund in Europe, told that the European court has no jurisdiction in the matter, and that the Italian courts are the only ones with the ability to properly adjudicate such cases.
“Member states are the only ones who can understand their own traditions,” Kiska said.
Miroslav Mikolasik, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Slovakia, told that the crucifix “symbolizes the sacrifice and service to others.”
“In a society where selfishness and ruthlessness govern, people tend to seek only their own interest.  This cultural symbol exists in each and every town, municipality and village all over the Europe, because Europe is based on Christian values even though it is not explicitly mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty,” Mikolasik, one of the 32 MEPs opposing the court’s decision, said.

In a letter to the court on behalf of the MEPs, Kiska states that the decision, “raises important questions with regard to subsidiarity, respect for cultural sovereignty,” and judicial overreach.

An editorial released Tuesday in the European Journal of International Law, NYU law professor Joseph Weiler called the Lautsi decision “an embarrassment,” but Weiler believes the European court does have jurisdiction in the case.

“I think the Court has jurisdiction to hear the case,” Weiler told in an e-mail interview. “But in exercising its jurisdiction there is a strong argument that it should decide that this issue should be left within the margin of appreciation of the member States of the Convention.”
In his editorial, Weiler raised concerns about the reach of the court’s decision: “May Irish schools no longer teach the Irish Constitution to schoolchildren because the Constitution endorses expressis verbis in its preamble the Holy Trinity? Must Denmark, like Sweden, abandon Lutheranism as the official Danish Church or hide this fact from its children?”
Mikolasik raised similar objections.
“As regards the references to Christianity in national constitutions, the ECHR is not competent to force sovereign and democratic states to remove them,” he told “On the other hand, if the Grand Chamber upholds the previous decision of the ECHR, similar cases will multiply all over the EU, and the states will be forced due to some individual request and without or even against general opinion and consensus to remove the crosses from all public places.”

Kiska expressed concern about the impact a negative decision could have.

“If this appeal is lost, future rulings could have disastrous consequences for member states and set a dangerous example for other countries to follow,” he said in a statement Tuesday. 
One of those countries could be the United States. Kiska told he is concerned about the “cross-polonization of ideas,” fearing the use of international law precedents by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Weiler, meanwhile, said he does not think that the decision will have much impact on the U.S. 
“Courts in the United States rarely look at foreign decisions, and when they do, it is simply to bolster positions that they have already adopted on other grounds.”
But European Member of Parliament Mikolasik fears that the decision will weaken the rights of Christians in Europe to express traditions that are thousands of years old.
“My question is why these values are wrong now, especially in (a) state like Italy that is intrinsically linked with Christianity?”