Left Hanging: The Crucifix in the Classroom and the Continuing Need for Reform in Italy

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Abstract: Increased immigration throughout Europe and expanding religious pluralism have exerted pressure on European States to make further accommodation for minority religious populations. This poses a challenge for Italy and other European States whose national identities are informed, at least in part, by a single religion. A recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights, holding that Italy could refuse parents' requests to remove crucifixes from the walls of public school classrooms, has reinvigorated debate throughout Europe on the appropriate place of religion in the public arena. This Comment posits that in issuing this opinion, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has missed an opportunity to provide meaningful insight into the debate on how European States may confront the challenges posed by an increasingly religiously diverse society. As such, European States are left to determine the policies and parameters of religious accommodation individually.


On March 18, 2011, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issued a judgment in the case of Lautsi v. Italy, in which it declared that the display of crucifixes on the walls of public school classrooms in Italy did not violate the human rights of its citizens, as set forth by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Convention).1 The decision was delivered in stark contrast to the previous ruling issued by the Second Section of the ECtHR on November 3, 2009, in which the court unanimously held that the public display of crucifixes in Italian public school classrooms did amount to a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention.2 These successive decisions emerge within an ongoing de- bate in Europe concerning the appropriate place of religion in the pub- lie arena.3 The Grand Chamber's judgment in Lautsi will have broad implications for that debate, and for the search for an appropriate bal- ance between States' interests in preserving the right to forge and main- tain their own State identities and the rapidly evolving need to accom- modate an increasingly religiously plural European society.4

This Comment proceeds in three parts. Part I provides a back- ground on Lautsi and the reasoning used by the Grand Chamber in re- versing the Second Section's decision. Part II discusses how the histori- cal tradition of Christianity in Italy and throughout Europe has informed the European identity, and how the intertwining of these ele- ments poses a challenge for States under the Convention. Part III ana- lyzes in greater detail the text of the Grand Chamber's opinion, with particular focus upon the court's use of the "margin of appreciation" doctrine. This section argues that the Grand Chamber failed to contrib- ute any meaningful insight to the debate on how European States may confront the challenges of an increasingly religiously diverse society.

I. Background

At the start of the case, Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born Italian na- tional, lived in Italy with her eleven and thirteen year-old sons, Dataico and Sami Albertin.5 During the 2001-2002 school year, the boys at- tended the Istituto comprensivo statale Vittorino da Feltre (Istituto), a State public school in Abano Terme, in the province of Padua.6 In each of the school's classrooms, including those rooms in which Ms. Lautsi's children had lessons, a crucifix hung on the wall.7 On April 22, 2002, Ms. Lautsi's husband voiced his concern during a meeting of the school's governors about the crucifixes in his sons' classrooms, and in- quired whether they could be removed.8 By a majority vote, the school's governors decided not to remove the crucifixes from the classroom.9

Ms. Lautsi appealed to the Veneto Administrative Court on July 23, 2002, complaining that the school's policy infringed upon her right to a secular education for her children under Articles 3 and 19 of the Ital- ian Constitution, and Article 9 of the Convention. …