BRUSSELS — A European ruling banning crucifixes in Italian schools should be overturned, nine European governments said in an appeal Wednesday.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes in Italian public schools violate religious and education freedoms last November. The case, part of a larger debate over the role of religious symbols in public places, has sharpened divisions between secular and religious advocacy groups.
Italian courts have previously ruled that the display of crucifixes is part of Italian national identity and not an attempt at conversion, an argument expanded by New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler on behalf of the governments of Italy, Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, San Marino, Romania and Russia, who are appealing the ruling.
The decisions of the court — an arm of the Council of Europe, the continent's premier human rights watchdog — are binding on the council's 47 member states and therefore have an impact far beyond Italy.
"The democratic cohesion of society is dependent on the ability to uphold national symbols around which all society can coalesce," Weiler said. "It would be a strange (if Italy) had to abandon national symbols, and strip from its cultural identikit, any symbol which also had a religious significance."
Crucifixes are commonly displayed in Italian schools and public places.
In its Nov. 3 ruling, the European court said the crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils. It added that state-run schools must "observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education," where attendance is compulsory.
This is a fight over a preposition: is a secular state one in which freedom of religion is valued, or is a secular state one in which freedom from religion is mandated in the public square?
The ruling regarding the crucifixes, like many similar rulings dealing with religious symbols here in America, takes the latter position. So extreme is the idea that the public square must be free from religion that this recent Supreme Court ruling held, in effect, that the cross in question was actually, somehow, a secular symbol.
But it's not necessary to insist that crosses, crucifixes, menorahs, etc. displayed on public land are actually secular symbols and thus it's okay to put them on land paid for by public funds or in buildings owned by the government. All that is necessary is to have an understanding of what the concept of "freedom of religion" really means.
It means that the government doesn't officially recognize one religion or denomination over all the others. It means that there is no established church supported by tax dollars. It means that the indoctrination of one particular religion or denomination does not take place in publicly-funded schools (but that religious schools are free to establish themselves and operate without government interference). It means that there are no fines or other punishments for failing to belong to the government church.
It does not mean that there can be no religious symbols in a classroom, especially in a nation with a strong heritage of one religion or another. It does not mean that religious speech is or ought to be prohibited any time it might make a non-religious person feel uncomfortable. It does not mean that a country can't put "In God We Trust" on the money, or write the phrase "under God," into its pledge of allegiance. It does not mean that the secular state must have a default preference for atheism or agnosticism in the public square, or that religious speech, ideas, symbols, and displays ought to be treated as though they are de facto less valuable than non-religious speech, ideas, symbols or displays.
Our Founding Fathers thought Americans should have freedom of religion. They probably would have found the notion of freedom from religion to be something which actually impinged rather seriously on the true freedom of the people of a free nation.