In a judgment delivered at Strasbourg on 18.03.2011, in the case of Lautsi and Others v. Italy (application no. 30814/06), the European Court of Human Rights held, by a majority (15 votes to two), that there had been: No violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (right to education) to the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms in Italy, which, according to the applicants, was incompatible with the obligation on the State, in the exercise of the functions which it assumed in relation to education and to teaching, to respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in accordance with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

Principal facts

The applicants are Italian nationals who were born in 1957, 1988 and 1990 respectively. The first applicant, Soile Lautsi, and her two sons, Dataico and Sami Albertin2, live in Italy. In the school year 2001-2002 Dataico and Sami Albertin attended the Istituto comprensivo statale Vittorino da Feltre, a State school in Abano Terme. A crucifix was fixed to the wall in each of the school’s classrooms. On 22 April 2002, during a meeting of the school’s governors, Ms Lautsi’s husband raised the question of the presence of religious symbols in the classrooms, particularly mentioning crucifixes, and asked whether they ought to be removed. Following a decision of the school’s governors to keep religious symbols in classrooms, Ms Lautsi brought proceedings in the Veneto Administrative Court on 23 July 2002, complaining of, among other things, an infringement of the principle of secularism. In 2004 the Constitutional Court declared the question as to constitutionality, which had been referred to it by the Administrative Court, manifestly inadmissible on the ground that it was directed towards texts – the relevant provisions of the two royal decrees which, not having the status of law, but only that of regulations, could not form the subject of a review of constitutionality.

On 17 March 2005 the Administrative Court dismissed the application lodged by Ms Lautsi. The court took the view, in particular, that the crucifix was a symbol of Christianity in general rather than of Catholicism alone, so that it served as a point of reference for other creeds. It went on to say that the crucifix was a historical and cultural symbol, possessing an “identity-linked value” for the Italian people, and that it should also be considered a symbol of a value system underpinning the Italian Constitution.  Ms Lautsi appealed to the Consiglio di Stato, which gave judgment on 13 April 2006 confirming that crucifix symbolised civil values which characterised Italian civilisation – tolerance, affirmation of one’s rights, the autonomy of one’s moral conscience vis-à-vis authority, human solidarity and the refusal of any form of discrimination – the crucifix in classrooms could fulfil, in a “secular” perspective, a highly educational function.

Decision of the Court

It could be seen from the Court’s case-law that the obligation on the Member States of the Council of Europe to respect the religious and philosophical convictions of parents did not apply only to the content of teaching and the way it was provided; it bound them “in the exercise” of all the “functions” which they assumed in relation to education and teaching. That included the organization of the school environment where domestic law attributed that function to the public authorities. The decision whether crucifixes should be present in State-school classrooms formed part of the functions assumed by the Italian State and, accordingly, fell within the scope of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

The Court found that, while the crucifix was above all a religious symbol, there was no evidence before the Court that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils. Furthermore, whilst it was nonetheless understandable that the first applicant might see in the display of crucifixes in the classrooms of the State school formerly attended by her children a lack of respect on the State’s part for her right to ensure their education and teaching in conformity with her own philosophical convictions, her subjective perception was not sufficient to establish a breach of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

The court observed that by prescribing the presence of crucifixes in Stateschool classrooms the Italian regulations conferred on the country’s majority religion preponderant visibility in the school environment. In its view, that was not in itself sufficient, however, to denote a process of indoctrination on Italy’s part and establish a breach of the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1. It referred on that point to its earlier case-law in which it had held8 that having regard to the preponderance of one religion throughout the history of a country the fact that the school curriculum gave it greater prominence than other religions could not in itself be viewed as a process of indoctrination. It observed that a crucifix on a wall was an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.

The Court concluded that, in deciding to keep crucifixes in the classrooms of the State school attended by Ms Lautsi’s children, the authorities had acted within the limits of the margin of appreciation left to Italy in the context of its obligation to respect, in the exercise of the functions it assumed in relation to education and teaching, the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. Accordingly, there had been no violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 in respect of the first applicant. The Court further considered that no separate issue arose under Article 9.

In its Chamber judgment the Court had held that, regard being had to its conclusion that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 taken together with Article 9 of the Convention, there was no cause to examine the case under Article 14.

Source: ECHR press release

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