Vatican Welcomes Court's OK to Crucifixes in Schools

Says Decision Affirms Christianity’s Role in Europe’s History

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 18, 2011 ( The director of the Vatican press office is welcoming today’s ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, which found that crucifixes can be displayed in Italy’s public schools.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the Holy See received the ruling “with satisfaction.”

He called it historical, noting the widespread opposition to the court’s November 2009 decision that the presence of crucifixes in schools was an affront to human rights. Italy was joined by more than 20 countries as well as a number of non-governmental organizations in appealing the ’09 ruling.

Father Lombardi said that today’s decision recognizes “that the culture of the rights of man must not be in opposition to the religious foundations of European civilization, to which Christianity has made an essential contribution.”

He also lauded application of the principle of subsidiarity, such that the court pointed to a “duty to guarantee every country a margin of appreciation of the value of religious symbols in their own cultural history and in the national identity and of the place of their exposition.”

“Otherwise,” Father Lombardi reflected, “in the name of religious liberty, there would be a tendency, paradoxically, to limit or even deny this liberty to exclude all protests from public life. Liberty itself would in this way thus be violated.”

The Vatican spokesman said that today’s decision could re-establish confidence in the rights court on the part of Europeans who are “convinced and conscious of the decisive role of Christian values in their own history, but also in the building of European unity and in its culture of law and liberty.”

World model

Joseph Weiler, a Jewish law professor at the New York University School of Law, represented, pro bono, the governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, the Russian Federation and San Marino in the case.

Because the ruling occurred near the beginning of the Sabbath, he was not present at the court, but he released a statement affirming cautious satisfaction with the outcome.

“Overturning the decision of the Chamber represents a rejection of a ‘One Size Fits All’ Europe and a vindication of its pluralist tradition in which equal dignity is accorded to the constitutional choices of a France and a Britain, an Italy and a Sweden and the other myriad formulae for recognizing religious symbols in the public space,” Weiler said. “Europe is special in that it guarantees at the private level both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, but does not force its various peoples to disown in its public spaces what for many is an important part of the history and identity of their states, a part recognized even by those who do not share the same religion or any religion at all.”

The lawyer spoke of a “particular spirit of tolerance” in Europe, “which explains how in countries such as, say, Britain or Denmark to give but two examples, where there is an established state church no less — Anglican and Lutheran respectively — Catholics, Jews, Muslims and, of course, the many citizens who profess no religious faith, can be entirely ‘at home,’ play a full role in public life including the holding of the highest office, and feel it is ‘their country’ no less than anyone else. It is an important model for the world of which Europe can be justly proud.”

Weiler asserted that both states forbidding religious symbols in classrooms and those requiring them should ensure that young people do not misunderstand the situation.

“The prohibition of religious symbols should not be understood as a denigration of religion or religious people and the requirement of a religious symbol such as the cross, should not be understood as denigrating other religions or those who do not profess a religious faith at all,” he said. “For the most part, this spirit is a contemporary European reality, Italy being a shining example.”

Foundation of democracy

In the ruling, the court asserted that the crucifix has a meaning beyond the religious one. The judgement found that the crucifix “symbolized the principles and values which formed the foundation of democracy and western civilization, and that its presence in classrooms was justifiable on that account.”

Prescribing crucifixes in state school classrooms does give the majority religion preponderant visibility, the court acknowledged, but “that was not in itself sufficient, however, to denote a process of indoctrination on Italy’s part.”

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