Theocracy Watch: European Edition

While we Americans have been focusing on this week’s elections, there was another important piece of the news from across the Atlantic you might have missed: the European Court of Human Rights has ruled against displaying crucifixes in state-run Italian schools.

A panel of seven judges in Strasbourg said the display of Christian crosses, which is common but not mandatory in Italian schools, violated the principle of secular education and might be “disturbing” for children from other faiths.

It upheld a complaint filed by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish woman with Italian citizenship, who complained that her children had to attend a state school in northern Italy which had crucifixes in every classroom.

…”The presence of the crucifix could be … disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities,” the court said in its ruling.

Bravo! This is a well-reasoned and obviously correct ruling. Of course the crucifix may be disturbing to people of other faiths or atheists. It is, after all, a graphic depiction of a man being brutally tortured to death by one of the most sadistic and agonizing methods of execution ever invented by human beings. Imagine the unhappy parent who has to explain to her young child what this symbol means and why it’s on the wall at their school!

The presence of the crucifix in a state-run classroom is an obvious violation of secularism, an obvious intrusion of religion into the government, and it stands in opposition to parents’ right to direct the religious education of their own children as they wish. Any parent who would express outrage if their children were required to attend a school where the Muslim star-and-crescent, or the atheists’ scarlet A, was prominent on the wall of every classroom, should understand why the crucifix is equally problematic.

But just as in the U.S., Europe too has its religious supremacists who’ve grown used to official state support and sponsorship of their beliefs, and who resort to obvious sophistries to deny the reasoning behind this ruling. For example, this blogger from the Telegraph:

Ms Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born Italian national, felt that the 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 – quite rightly – refused her request on the grounds that crucifixes have been in Italian state schools since the 1920s, and are as much a national symbol as they are a religious one.

In other words, this argument is saying that Italy is a Christian theocracy – the central symbol of the Christian religion is also a “national symbol” – and that this state of affairs is good and desirable and should continue. I’ll give him credit for being so explicit about his desire for theocracy, but his claim is false: Italy’s Constitution says that all citizens “are equal before the law, without regard to… religion”. A violation of secularism does not become more acceptable just because it’s been going on for longer.

Imagine an atheist mother in Britain – or, for that matter, a Muslim or a Hindu one – deciding that her local state school’s Nativity play was imposing a “particular religious belief” on her children. Would she be able to persuade the ECHR to ban it?

If the state sponsors religious activities for children and requires them to participate? Yes, absolutely! Religious functions directed and sponsored by the government absolutely should be banned. This author is essentially complaining, “If we correct one violation of state-church separation, we’ll have to correct all the violations of state-church separation!”

Whether this ruling will actually go into effect is more doubtful: at least so far, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has vowed to defy it. What the consequences of doing so might be are not yet clear. But regardless, we can celebrate this ruling as one clear victory for reason and common sense: state-sponsored religion is a medieval relic that has no place in a modern, secular democracy.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.