Europe’s classrooms can keep the Cross of Christ
Back in 2009, an atheist mother in Italy, Ms Soile Lautsi, brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights because her two sons, aged 11 and 13, had been subjected to the horrifying and spiritually disturbing trauma of having to see a crucifix in a state school. She argued that crucifixes were ‘contrary to the principle of secularism by which she wished to bring up her children’, and asked for them to be removed. The school refused, arguing that crucifixes have been present in public buildings for centuries and in Italian state schools by Royal Decree since 1924: they are not simply a religious symbol but a national one.
In a judgment which outraged just about the whole of Italy, the European Court rejected the Italian government arguments that the crucifix was a national symbol of culture, history and identity, tolerance and secularism, saying the crucifix in the classroom was against the principle of secularism by which Ms Lautsi wished to raise her children. They decreed:
The presence of the crucifix – which it was impossible not to notice in the classrooms – could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign and they would feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion. This could be encouraging for religious pupils, but also disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities… The State was to refrain from imposing beliefs in premises where individuals were dependent on it. In particular, it was required to observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education, where attending classes was compulsory irrespective of religion, and where the aim should be to foster critical thinking in pupils.The implications for religious symbols in state school across Europe were considerable. And let’s be honest, when they refer to removal of ‘religious symbols’, they are only really talking about one – the cross. It is as symbolic of Europe’s heritage and culture as it is of its religion: for every crescent, khanda, Star of David or Jedi hood they seek to eradicate, they will remove a thousand crosses and crucifixes.
Not to mention Bibles, religious posters, children’s art work, stained glass windows, Christmas trees, Nativity plays...
Today’s appeal by the Italian government against their ruling has been won (full judgement here). Well, credit where it's due: two-and-a-half cheers for the ECHR. It was argued that crucifixes in Italian classrooms are ‘a passive symbol that bear no relationship to the actual teaching, which is secular’. The jurist representing the 10 Council of Europe members supporting Italy, Joseph Weiler, said that ‘Italy without the crucifix would no longer be Italy’.
"The crucifix is both a national and a religious symbol," he said, and the Court accepted this. The judges agreed that religious references and symbols are pervasive throughout Europe and do not necessarily connote faith. We have in this judgement confirmation that the outward show of religion can be devoid of inner meaning or sincerity, just as the Lord said (Mt 23:27).
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said of the ruling: “This is a severe blow to the concept of state neutrality in relation to religion, and to secularism. It flies in the face of Europe’s increasing plurality and diversity and risks damaging the court’s previous reputation of treating all citizen’s equally.”
Why can he not see that secularism is not neutral? A classroom without religious symbols communicates that the values upon which education is pursued are without religious foundation. It is impossible to eradicate the perception by children that the values and precepts of secularism are superior to whatever they seek to supplant. There is no separation of church and state in the UK; even those constituent parts of the country which have a disestablished church retain the Supreme Governor of the Church of England as their Head of State. The British Head of State is Protestant and Christian by law. The Monarch is bound by her Coronation Oath to defend that faith and govern the peoples of the United Kingdom in accordance with their customs and traditions of law.
Aggressive secularists and atheist busybodies should not be free to demand that their sensitivities should trump everybody else's freedom of religion.
The Cross of Christ is symbolic not only of faith, but of the value system which underpins our culture and traditions, our law-making and jurisprudence. The Cross symbolises our civil values of tolerance, affirmation of our responsibilities and rights, the autonomy of our moral conscience vis-à-vis authority, human solidarity and the refusal of any form of discrimination. The Cross is the very foundation of Europe’s secular values.
Adolf Hitler ordered the removal of crosses and crucifixes from public buildings: he antagonised the Bavarians in particular by insisting that Christian iconography in schools had to be replaced with Nazi symbols. We may laugh light-heartedly at aspects of ‘Political Correctness’, but few Germans will find humour in the Nazi philosophy of Gleichschaltung: the bringing into alignment all expressions of opinion and policy.
For God’s sake, let Europe not go back there.