A Note from Our Editor: Crucifixes in Italy

On 3 November 2009, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg dropped a political/religious bombshell.  In Lautsi v. Italy, Case No. 30814/06, the Court ruled that the Italian law requiring the display of crucifixes in public school classrooms throughout the country was incompatible with Article 9 (freedom of religion) and of Protocol 1, Article 2 (parental rights in the education of their children) of the European Convention [Treaty] of Human Rights.

To say that the decision has created a flap would be a vast understatement.  Politicians, churchmen--and the Pope--have been outraged.  Since the Court's decision has been published only in French, and is therefore inaccessible to most of our readers, we shall comment briefly on it.   Its relevance goes far beyond the boot of Italy.

The Italian crucifix law originated in 1860, and crucifixes have been a fixture in Italy's public school classrooms ever since.  But a Finnish woman, one Soile Lautsi, a non-believer married to an Italian, objected to the fact that her two children were subjected to this religious symbol.  She sued, and her case went through the Italian courts without success.  Having "exhausted domestic [i.e., national] remedies," she took the case to Strasbourg, and the Court agreed with her.  In immediate reaction to the decision, the Italian foreign minister declared: "This is a death blow for a Europe of values and rights."  The Vatican questioned the right of the European Court to interfere in a central matter of Italian belief and practice, calling the ruling "wrong and myopic."

The Italian government's lawyers had argued that the crucifix, as a national symbol, should not be removed from classrooms since it simply reflected the fact that Europe in general and Italy in particular have been deeply influenced by the tradition represented by the crucifix.   So what was the Court's rationale for barring the crucifix?

First, the Court noted that in 1948, when Italy adopted its present republican constitution, it explicitly separated the state from the Catholic Church; and in 2000 the Italian Constitutional Court interpreted this as meaning that the state had to remain "equidistant and impartial" in relation to all religious and philosophical beliefs held by the citizenry.  Secondly, the European Court of Human Rights, whilst agreeing that the crucifix is a multifaceted symbol, pointed out the obvious:  that its predominant reference is religious, and specifically Christian.  Therefore to display it in public school classrooms is to give a special, privileged position to one particular religion.  Finally, the Court observed that school children are especially impressionable--vulnerable to influence, owing to their youth and inexperience.

Why should this case be of interest to those outside Italy--and particularly to evangelical Christian believers in America?  Because the Lautsi case almost exactly parallels the cases brought to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts which have resulted in the removal of prayers from public schools and biblical symbols, such as the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes, from public property.  After my late protagonist Madalyn Murray O'Hair succeeded in her fight to remove mandatory prayer and Bible reading from American public schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962, Abington School District v. Schempp, 1963, and Murray v. Curlett, 1963), the evangelical community was appalled, arguing, as the Italian government was to do in Lautsi, that this was the end of "Christian America" and that, after all, the symbols involved need not be taken as primarily religious in nature but can be treated as simply part of the general cultural tradition.

This line of argumentation, however, is fundamentally flawed--and is as hurtful to Christian faith as it is to the political order.  In both the U.S. and Italy, there is constitutional separation of church and state.  It is simply wrong for citizens to be compelled to support a religion which does not reflect their personal beliefs.  (Indeed, the crucifix itself can be an offense to some Christians, for example, very conservative Protestants who see in it a "graven image" contrary to the Second Commandment!)  No one forced Italy to separate church and state in 1948; they could have continued as before and retained crucifixes--as does England, with the establishment of "the Reformed branch of the Holy Catholic Church" (the Anglican Church)--and where, consequently, Christian symbols cannot be removed from public schools or public property.  But, politically, one cannot have one's cake and eat it too!

Even more importantly, the arguments of pro-crucifix and pro-nativity scene advocates demean Christian faith by trying to maintain these symbols by saying that they really are no longer specifically Christian--that they have become merely cultural or national in character!  This is dreadful, for it is a denial of the saving message they convey.  And prayers in the public schools will be either, if genuinely Christian--in the name of Jesus--offensive to non-believers, whose tax money also supports those schools, or, if merely general in nature (directed to an undefined Deity--the Great Puff of Smoke?), contrary to the biblical mandate that all prayer should be "in Jesus' name" and therefore unable to be prayed by Christians!

The great advantage of separating church and state is that a level playing field is created for all religious and philosophical positions, and on that field historic Christianity can triumph--and will triumph if the biblical gospel is effectively preached and the powerful apologetic evidence for its truth conveyed.  Why? because only the Christian faith (not the other world's religions, not the cults and sects, not the philosophers' speculations) can marshall the "many infallible proofs" supporting the truth of the written and the living Word (Acts 1:3).1

* * *

"Here comes the Judge"!  We are privileged in this issue of the Global Journal to feature contributions from two distinguished Christian members of the judiciary.  Both serve on the bench in the British Commonwealth:  Australia (Ken Handley) and Canada (Dallas Miller).  For the non-cognoscenti, this means that they operate in a common-law context, as is the case with virtually all the courts of the United States (exception: Louisiana, which is nonetheless subject to common-law federal jurisdiction).  The law of evidence is much more fully developed in common law contexts than in European civil law countries, so our judges' concern to apply legal standards of proof to issues of Christian apologetics should be of high interest to Global Journal readers.

Since Old Testament prophecy is so important to the biblical apologetic, Vol. 7, No. 3, also features an article by Joseph Rhodes on the prophetic book of Daniel.  The article concludes:  Daniel's "incredible forecasts of world-history in Greek Roman times . . . and his profound depiction of the 'days of the end' indicate the supernatural integrity of his visions."

To round off this issue -- maintaining its primarily juridical flavour -- there is a full-scale analysis of the legal philosophy of one of the most influential secular American judges of our time, Richard Posner.  And, to benefit from all this, readers will not even receive a bill for legal services rendered!

-- John Warwick Montgomery


1.   On 18 March 2011, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, by a vote of 15 to 2, overruled the earlier Italian crucifix judgment rendered unanimously by its Second Section, so as to permit the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools.  It is clear that tremendous political pressure had been applied to reverse the original decision.  The Court's reasoning--e.g., "a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol" (para. 72)--is based essentially on the view that the crucifix has lost any active evangelistic force and become (as the Italian State had to argue) merely a cultural symbol. As believing Christians, do we want to support that kind of interpretation in order to justify secular governmental support of our beliefs?

Opinions expressed in the Global Journal are those of the individual authors.


They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or of Patrick Henry College.