The Grand Chamber (in effect the Appeals Court) of the European Court of Human Rights in Lautsi v Italy 2011 has overruled the earlier decision of the Court in the case of Lautsi v Italy 2009.
I had blogged previously about the 2009 decision on 5 November 2009, 7 November 2009 and 13 April 2010 but for those who have missed this saga the case involved a Mrs Lautsi a Finnish Lady who had moved to Italy and then complained about the presence of Crucifixes in Italian State Schools which is a bit like moving to Finland and then complaining about the snow. In the 2009 decision the ECtHR decided that the presence of the Crucifix interfered with Mrs Lautsi's childrens freedom of religion as guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Protocol 2 of the Convention relating to the rights of parents to have their children educated in accordance with the parents philosophical and religious beliefs
As I predicted in my earlier Blogs the ECtHR based its decision on the concept of the "margin of appreciation" and decided that it was for individual countries to make these decisions so that just as France is free to ban all religious symbols from state schools so Italy is free to put religious symbols in state schools. In the UK context this is a significant basis for the decision. When UK Courts apply the Human Rights Act 1998 which incorporates the European Convention into UK law they apply the "margin of appreciation" so as to give that margin to Government and public bodies. The fact that the display of the Crucifix, or indeed any other form of religious symbol, is governed by the "margin of appreciation" will go a long way to free local and central government, schools etc from the danger of legal cases being brought to ban Nativity Displays, prayers at remembrance parades etc.
Unusually for the ECtHR there were a number of separate concurring judgments and I feel that some of them deserve quoting in detail because they do pick up and question the often unquestioned assumption that Secularism is the same as religious neutrality
1.1 A court of human rights cannot allow itself to suffer from historical Alzheimer's. It has no right to disregard the cultural continuum of a nation's flow through time, nor to ignore what, over the centuries, has served to mould and define the profile of a people. No supranational court has any business substituting its own ethical mock-ups for those qualities that history has imprinted on the national identity. On a human rights court falls the function of protecting fundamental rights, but never ignoring that “customs are not passing whims. They evolve over time, harden over history into cultural cement. They become defining, all-important badges of identity for nations, tribes, religions, individuals”.
1.2 A European court should not be called upon to bankrupt centuries of European tradition. No court, certainly not this Court, should rob the Italians of part of their cultural personality
2.5 Freedom of religion is not secularism. Freedom of religion is not the separation of Church and State. Freedom of religion is not religious equidistance – all seductive notions, but of which no one has so far appointed this Court to be the custodian. In Europe, secularism is optional, freedom of religion is not.
2.6 Freedom of religion, and freedom from religion, in substance, consist in the rights to profess freely any religion of the individual's choice, the right to freely change one's religion, the right not to embrace any religion at all, and the right to manifest one's religion by means of belief, worship, teaching and observance. Here the Convention catalogue grinds to a halt, well short of the promotion of any State secularism."
Neutrality requires a pluralist approach on the part of the State, not a secularist one. It encourages respect for all world views rather than a preference for one. To my mind, the Chamber Judgment was striking in its failure to recognise that secularism (which was the applicant's preferred belief or world view) was, in itself, one ideology among others. A preference for secularism over alternative world views—whether religious, philosophical or otherwise—is not a neutral option. The Convention requires that respect be given to the first applicant's convictions insofar as the education and teaching of her children was concerned. It does not require a preferential option for and endorsement of those convictions over and above all others.........To prohibit in public schools, regardless of the wishes of the body politic, the display of a symbol representative of that (or indeed any other religious) tradition and to require of the State that it pursues not a pluralist but a secularist agenda, risks venturing towards the territory of intolerance – a concept that is contrary to the values of the Convention."