Lautsi v Italy

Forum: European Court of Human Rights
INTERIGHTS’ role: Joint third party interveners
Keywords: Education, religion

Court reaffirms importance of neutrality in classroom but rules that crucifixes can stay

On 18 March 2011, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights handed down its judgment in the case of Lautsi v Italy on whether the presence of crucifixes in state school classrooms violated the rights to education and religious freedom under the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the decision by the Italian authorities to retain crucifixes in the classroom in the face of objections by a parent and her two children, who were at secondary school, that it infringed the duty to ensure neutrality in the classroom.

The Grand Chamber found 15 – 2 in favour of the state, thereby reversing an earlier unanimous Chamber decision which had upheld the applicants’ complaint. In so doing the Court held that whether or not crucifixes should be present in state run schools is within the states’ margin of appreciation.

The Court accepted that a state’s duty to respect the religious and philosophical convictions of parents not only applies to the content of teaching and the way it is provided but also the organisation of the school environment, including whether crucifixes should be present in classrooms. However, the Court went on to hold that the crucifix was ‘an essentially passive symbol’ which could not be considered as having the same effect on pupils as proselytizing or engaging in ‘religious activities’. Unfortunately, the Court failed to give any reasons as to why the crucifix should be regarded in this way and, therefore, whether it establishes a definitive precedent for any future cases concerning religious symbols.

For the majority of the Court the decision whether crucifixes should be present in classrooms was, in principle, a matter falling within the margin of appreciation of the state, particularly where there was no European consensus. However, the Court was still required to satisfy itself that indoctrination was not taking place. In this respect, the Court held that the greater visibility of the crucifix was offset by three factors: (a) the presence of crucifixes was not associated with compulsory teaching about Christianity; (b) there was no evidence of intolerance towards other religions or those without any religion and (c) that the children’s mother could influence and educate them in the way of her own convictions.

INTERIGHTS, together with the International Commission of Jurists and Human Rights Watch, intervened in the case with the aim of setting out relevant international and comparative case law and standards. The brief argued that effective protection of the rights to freedom of religion or belief and to education in a multi-religious, pluralist society requires state neutrality between beliefs in state-provided education. In turn, this  neutrality requires an educational environment which fosters pluralism and tolerance and this can be offended through the officially sanctioned display of religious symbols. Our brief also emphasised the importance of placing the rights of the child in education at the heart of the Convention provision.

The Court, referencing much of the comparative case law and standards contained in the  intervention and to a large extent endorsing the principal argument of state neutrality, nevertheless relied on the margin of appreciation in finding no violation of the Convention. This is despite the fact that, as highlighted in our brief, where European supreme or constitutional courts have been required to give a ruling on the issue they have tended to give precedence to the principle of state denominational neutrality. The interveners particularly welcomed the approach of the dissenting judgment which drew on many of the arguments set out in our brief.

Click here to read the joint third party intervention

INTERIGHTS contact: Pádraig Hughes.