Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Cross Purposes

The European court of Human Rights has allowed an appeal by Italy to allow the display of crucifixes in public schools. The judgement can be read here.

I think this is about where the line is drawn for member states to reinforce their cultural worldview. Religion should be disallowed, because a plurality of beliefs is inevitable in a modern Europe, so a religious component would be an unacceptable infringement of minority rights. This is the secular way, and these European organs are supposed to be secular. Sadly, the court here has ruled to allow such an infringement. Here are paras 67 and 68:
67. The Government, for their part, explained that the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms, being the result of Italy's historical development, a fact which gave it not only a religious connotation but also an identity-linked one, now corresponded to a tradition which they considered it important to perpetuate. They added that, beyond its religious meaning, the crucifix symbolised the principles and values which formed the foundation of democracy and western civilisation, and that its presence in classrooms was justifiable on that account.
68. The Court takes the view that the decision whether or not to perpetuate a tradition falls in principle within the margin of appreciation of the respondent State. The Court must moreover take into account the fact that Europe is marked by a great diversity between the States of which it is composed, particularly in the sphere of cultural and historical development. It emphasises, however, that the reference to a tradition cannot relieve a Contracting State of its obligation to respect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention and its Protocols.
So Italy point out that the crucifix is an 'identity-linked' symbol, clearly trying to get round the secular problem. The next para rules that it's within Italy's 'margin of appreciation'. In other words, it's something that the member state can rule on, presumably because they accept that it is not a purely religious symbol, and, in any case, they see no evidence it has any (religious?) effect.

Look at the crucifix above, at St James Academy, Lenexa, Kansas. It's designed to make an impact:
When asked to describe her first reaction to the new crucifix at St. James Academy, Mrs. Nearmyer said, “Wow. How would I explain it? Sadness, I had a hard time breathing, it took my breath away.” She felt like she couldn’t leave Him alone with his suffering, and was overcome with sadness.
No kidding.

The dissenting opinion starts at page 47, observing:

5. The crucifix is undeniably a religious symbol. The respondent Government argued that, in the context of the school environment, the crucifix symbolised the religious origin of values that had now become secular, such as tolerance and mutual respect. It thus fulfilled a highly educational symbolic function, irrespective of the religion professed by the pupils, because it was the expression of an entire civilisation and universal values. In my view, the presence of the crucifix in classrooms goes well beyond the use of symbols in particular historical contexts. The Court has moreover held that the traditional nature, in the social and historical sense, of a text used by members of parliament when swearing loyalty did not deprive the oath to be sworn of its religious nature. As observed by the Chamber, negative freedom of religion is not restricted to the absence of religious services or religious education. It also extends to symbols expressing a belief or a religion. That negative right deserves special protection if it is the State which displays a religious symbol and dissenters are placed in a situation from which they cannot extract themselves. Even if it is accepted that the crucifix can have multiple meanings, the religious meaning still remains the predominant one. In the context of state education it is necessarily perceived as an integral part of the school environment and may even be considered as a powerful external symbol. I note, moreover, that even the Italian Court of Cassation rejected the argument that the crucifix symbolised values independent of a particular religious belief (see paragraph 67). 
...and concludes:
8. To conclude, effective protection of the rights guaranteed by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention requires States to observe the strictest denominational neutrality. This is not limited to the school curriculum, but also extends to “the school environment”. As primary and secondary schooling are compulsory, the State should not impose on pupils, against their will and without their being able to extract themselves, the symbol of a religion with which they do not identify. In doing so, the respondent Government have violated Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention.
I agree with the dissenting opinion. On the plus side, for Eurosceptics, it shows that European institutions are quite happy to leave such things to the discretion of its members. It's a shame that it's secularism that suffers from such discretion. And of course, for that reason, this isn't good news for the religious, since it means that majority religious institutions will trump minority ones. Evangelicals in Italy have spotted this:
Their coreligionists – evangelicals who actually live in Italy – aren’t so pleased with the outcome. The Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches called the ruling “a decision that does not fully realize a secular state” and “baggage from a society dominated by Catholic culture.”
Perhaps these abuses of secularism will finally convince the religious why secularism is the only way to proceed in our modern pluralist societies.


Post a Comment