The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] ruled [judgment, PDF; press release] Friday that the display of the crucifix in public schools in Italy does not violate Article 9 or Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF]. Article 9 is a right to freedom of religion, while Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 guarantees the right to an education in conformity with personal religious convictions. The parties challenging the display of the crucifix had argued that the religious objects interfered with the right to freedom of thought and that the crucifixes indicated that the government had a preference for a particular religion. The Italian government had argued that the presence of crucifixes was justified based upon tradition and that "beyond its religious meaning, the crucifix symbolized the principles and values which formed the foundation of democracy and western civilization." The court emphasized that member states have a "responsibility for ensuring, neutrally and impartially, the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs" in order to maintain religious tolerance and public order. The court ultimately ruled, however, that there was no evidence that the presence of crucifixes would negatively impact school children, and that the lack of evidence meant that no reasonable conclusions could be drawn as to the effect of the crucifixes on children whose convictions are still developing. If the ECHR found that the presence of the crucifix in public classrooms violated the Convention on Human Rights, the ruling would have applied to all 27 EU member states.
The court's ruling overturned a previous decision [JURIST report] in Lautsi v. Italy, which ordered the Italian government to remove crucifixes from state-run schools. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi responded to the initial ban by stating that Italy was not bound [JURIST report] by the ECHR's decision and that he found the decision to be disrespectful [Corriere della Sera report, in Italian]. Berlusconi also indicated at that time that, even if the government's appeal of the decision failed, the crucifixes would not be removed. The Greek Orthodox church also condemned [JURIST report] the ECHR's 2009 decision, urging European citizens to unite in protest of the decision. The Church feared that the Greek arm of human rights group Helsinki Monitor [advocacy website] would succeed in using the ruling to challenge the presence of religious icons in public settings in Greece.