Lautsi v. Italy: Possible Implications for Minority Religious Symbols

What are the implications of the recent landmark judgment in Lautsi for minority religious symbols in state school classrooms? At first sight, the Court seems to adopt a more open approach towards the presence of religious symbols in the school environment. On closer examination, however, this may not necessarily be the case. This post briefly speculates on the Court’s answers in two post-Lautsi imaginary scenarios: What would happen in a case filed by a state school teacher wearing a headscarf against a Member State that bans it? What might be the Court’s response to a parent’s complaint against a Member State that allows teachers to wear the headscarf in state schools? Continue reading

Lautsi v. Italy: the Argument from Neutrality

Lautsi v. Italy was destined to achieve legendary status in the ECtHR’s case law. In fact, it became the stuff of legends long before the Grand Chamber’s judgment came out. Rarely has a judgment of a supranational court put such a spell on people. Rarely has it inspired such passionate comments and speculation even before it was released. Rarely have so many people looked forward to a judgment with such anxious anticipation. But why? What is it about the issues involved in this case that causes it to speak so strongly to the hearts and minds of so many? It is a question I have been asking myself for a while now, while reflecting on the tension between freedom of and freedom from religion in the Court’s case law. And the question is haunting me now more than ever, having read the Lautsi judgment and the comments in the blogosphere thereon and preparing a post of my own. I have not been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question. At least not satisfactory to a legal mind. My personal preoccupation with Lautsi seems to stem from a strong conviction that neutrality requires that the state should not hang crucifixes on the walls in public schools. I will attempt to explain my opinion in this post. But I will also explain why this is perhaps not an issue to be decided by a human rights court.

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Lautsi and the Empty Wall

Is an empty wall in a state school classroom more neutral than a crucifix on it? No, it is not, argued NYU Professor, Joseph Weiler, representing various intervening governments in the very much expected Lautsi hearing last week. In his view, the naked wall (the absence of religion) is not a neutral option, particularly in today’s societies where the principal cleavages are not among different religions but rather between religious and non-religious (see also his post in EJIL: Talk!).

The Lautsi case raises a whole array of complex issues concerning the limits of permissible state-church relationships under the Convention. Some of the most interesting questions raised during the hearing revolved around the idea of state neutrality in the context of public education. This post focuses on the neutrality debate that took place during the hearing.  Continue reading

Remembering Lautsi

“When is a cross a cross?” was the heading of a post by Stanley Fish earlier this month in the NY Times Opinionator Blog. The entry referred to US Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Salazar v. Buono concerning a solitary Latin cross standing in the Californian desert as a memorial for those who fought in World War I. Alluding to the Establishment Clause jurisprudence, Fish notes that this case is the “latest chapter” of an “odd project of saving religion by emptying it of its content.” He argues that “[i]t has become a formula: if you want to secure a role for religious symbols in the public sphere, you must de-religionize them.”   Continue reading