Crucifixes can be displayed in state schools, European court rules

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

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The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously yesterday that state school classrooms displaying crucifixes do not violate the rights of non-Catholic pupils.

In a reversal of the unanimous November 2009 decision the court said, although the crucifix is "above all a religious symbol", it is an "essentially passive symbol" and there is no evidence crucifixes displayed on classroom walls influence pupils.

The court's final ruling reverses their 2009 decision in a case brought by a Finnish-born mother living in Italy who objected to the Roman Catholic symbols in her children's classrooms on the grounds that they violated the secular principles state schools should uphold. The court agreed, saying the crucifix might be "emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion". But the decision created a vociferous outcry in many European countries, such as Italy, which argued the crucifix is a cultural symbol, and a part of Europe's culture and history.

The appeal was handled by New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler, arguing extreme secularism could threaten the use of British national anthem God Save the Queen.

Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, welcomed the reversal. According to the newspaper La Repubblica he said, "The decision underlines, above all, the rights of citizens to defend their own values and their own identities. I hope that following this verdict Europe will begin to examine issues of tolerance and religious freedom with the same courage."

Friday's ruling is binding on the 47 countries that are members of the Council of Europe, the continent's monitor of human rights, paving the way for petitions to other governments to allow religious symbols in schools for those who want them.