A lay of Europe for all faiths



Exponents of the Catholic Church and the Italian government have reacted angrily to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights requiring the removal of crucifixes from all schools in the country. Since the Nov 3 decision, both entities are on a war footing and are mobilising to have the decision reversed or its enforcement blocked. The court is based in Strasbourg and has representatives from 47 nations, not all from Europe.

Is the decision scandalous, as its opponents assert, or inevitable?

The basis of the ruling states that “the State must abstain from imposing religious beliefs in places where people meet under its jurisdiction”. The presence of the crucifix in classrooms implies “a violation of the freedom of parents to educate their children in keeping with their own convictions” and is contrary to “the religious freedom of the students”. The court “does not believe that the display of a symbol that it irreasonable to associate with Catholicism can contribute to the educational pluralism essential to the preservation of a democratic society — a pluralism recognised by the Italian Constitutional Court”.

The sentence of the Strasbourg court is neither a scandal nor the product of ‘lay fury’. Rather, it is a simple confirmation that all public spaces belong to all, wheth er Catholic believers, non-believers, or believers of other religions.

Respect for all

On the other hand, laicism has nothing to do with majorities or minorities but involves the protection of each and every person. It is inclusive and respects all people, and public spaces — and schools in particular — are public because all can recognise themselves in them. In effect the premise of the ruling is that public spaces are dedicated to collectivity, which includes believers an non-believers alike, and for this reason I consider the ruling an act of common sense and authentic laicism.

The court’s decision teaches us the value of pluralism, a concept that should be familiar to all in a democratic society. Religiosity should reside in hearts and behaviour and not on walls.

It has been argued that the symbol of the crucifix is a part of our culture and identity as Italians. This is the same argument used at the European level when various religious groups and the Catholic Church in particular launched a fervent campaign to include in the preamble to the European constitution a statement that Christianity is an important part of the roots and cultures of the continent.

I don’t see how the current ruling can be seen as conflicting with people’s identity if there was no prior identification of the roots of Europe, or Italy, as Christian.

When the debate on the European constitution began, certain Catholic groups called for discussion to be shifted from the “roots to the fruits” of Christianity. And the majority of European nations did not agree that Christian identity should be included as a foundation of a union of peoples.

Cultural identity

At any rate, I think that a significant proportion of Catholics would find it difficult to defend the crucifix and all it represents as merely a component of cultural identity. The discussion should centre on the common values of the Old Continent. I agree with the thinking of Europeanist Altiero Spinelli that there is a precise historical European identity: a group of peoples who believe in liberal democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

There are millions of citizens — in Italy as well as other countries of Europe and the world — that have diverse cultural roots all of which are worthy of equal consideration. The religiosity practised in churches and places of worship deserves respect. However, public spaces must be maintained as such, neutral.

The option is a serious laicism, which is more and more Europe’s cultural patrimony, thanks to which we have reached a crucial balance that in no way impinges on the exercise of religion.

The Italian government has announced that it will appeal the decision of the European Court. I invite the government to reflect on the fact that this ruling should not be seen as a scandal or assault by lay forces but simply as a product of objective consideration. This should not be seen as an occasion to raise the barricades by either side.

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