ECtHR, Lautsi and Others v. Italy, Grand Chamber Decision, App. No. 30814/06 (2011), excerpt | Samuel Moyn | August 10, 2016


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ECtHR, Lautsi and Others v. Italy, Grand Chamber Decision, App. No. 30814/06 (2011), excerpt

European Court of Human Rights (Grand Chamber)

Lautsi v. Italy, App. No, 30814/06 (2011)




10.  The first applicant and her two sons, Dataico and Sami Albertin, also applicants, were born in 1957, 1988 and 1990 respectively. They are resident in Italy. In the school year 2001-2002 Dataico and Sami attended the Istituto comprensivo statale Vittorino da Feltre, a State school in Abano Terme. A crucifix was fixed to the wall in each of the school's classrooms.

11.  On 22 April 2002, during a meeting of the school's governors, the first applicant's husband raised the question of the presence of religious symbols in the classrooms, particularly mentioning crucifixes, and asked whether they ought to be removed. On 27 May 2002, by ten votes to two with one abstention, the school's governors decided to keep religious symbols in classrooms.

12.  On 23 July 2002 the first applicant contested that decision in the Veneto Administrative Court, complaining of an infringement of the principle of secularism, relying in that connection on Articles 3 (principle of equality) and 19 (religious freedom) of the Italian Constitution and Article 9 of the Convention, and on the principle of the impartiality of public administrative authorities (Article 97 of the Constitution).

13.  On 3 October 2002 the Minister of Education, Universities and Research adopted Directive no. 2666, instructing the competent services of his Ministry to take the necessary measures to see to it that school governors ensured the presence of crucifixes in classrooms (see paragraph 24 below).

On 30 October 2003 the Minister joined the proceedings brought by the first applicant. He argued that her application was ill-founded since the presence of crucifixes in the classrooms of publicly run schools was based on Article 118 of royal decree no. 965 of 30 April 1924 (internal regulations of middle schools) and Article 119 of royal decree no. 1297 of 26 April 1928 (approval of the general regulations governing primary education; see paragraph 19 below).

14.  By a decision of 14 January 2004 the Administrative Court referred to the Constitutional Court the question of the constitutionality, with regard to the principle of the secular character of the State and Articles 2, 3, 7, 8, 19 and 20 of the Constitution, of Articles 159 and 190 of legislative decree no. 297 of 16 April 1994 (approving the single text bringing together the legislative provisions in force regarding education and schools), in their “specifications” resulting from Articles 118 and 119 of the above-mentioned royal decrees, and of Article 676 of the same legislative decree.

Articles 159 and 190 make municipalities responsible for purchasing and supplying the furniture of primary and middle schools. Article 119 of the 1928 decree specifies that each classroom must have a crucifix and Article 118 of the 1924 decree that each classroom must have a portrait of the king and a crucifix. Article 676 of legislative decree no. 297 stipulates that provisions not included in the single text remain in force, “with the exception of provisions contrary to or incompatible with the single text, which are repealed”.

By a decision of 15 December 2004 (no. 389), the Constitutional Court declared the question as to constitutionality manifestly inadmissible, on the ground that it was in reality directed towards texts which, not having the status of law, but only that of regulations (the above-mentioned Articles 118 and 119), could not form the subject of a review of constitutionality….




29.  The applicants complained of the fact that crucifixes were affixed to the wall in the classrooms of the State school attended by the second and third applicants. They argued that this infringed the right to education, guaranteed by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 in the following terms:

“No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

They also contended that these facts infringed their right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention, which provides as follows:

“1.  Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2.  Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

A.  The Chamber's judgment

30.  In its judgment of 3 November 2009 the Chamber held that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 taken together with Article 9 of the Convention.

31.  First of all, the Chamber derived from the principles relating to the interpretation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 established in the Court's case-law an obligation on the State to refrain from imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons were dependent on it or in places where they were particularly vulnerable, emphasising that the schooling of children was a particularly sensitive area in that respect.

The Court went on to say that among the plurality of meanings the crucifix might have the religious meaning was predominant. It accordingly considered that the compulsory and highly visible presence of crucifixes in classrooms was capable not only of clashing with the secular convictions of the first applicant, whose children attended at that time a State school, but also of being emotionally disturbing for pupils of non-Christian religions or those who professed no religion. On that last point, the Chamber emphasised that the “negative” freedom of religion was not limited to the absence of religious services or religious education: it extended to practices and symbols expressing, in particular or in general, a belief, a religion or atheism. It added that this “negative right” deserved special protection if it was the State which expressed a belief and dissenters were placed in a situation from which they could not extract themselves if not by making disproportionate efforts and sacrifices.

According to the Chamber, the State had a duty to uphold confessional neutrality in public education, where school attendance was compulsory regardless of religion, and which had to seek to inculcate in pupils the habit of critical thought. It observed in addition that it could not see how the display in State-school classrooms of a symbol that it was reasonable to associate with the majority religion in Italy could serve the educational pluralism which was essential for the preservation of “democratic society” within the Convention meaning of that term.

32.  The Chamber concluded that “the compulsory display of a symbol of a particular faith in the exercise of public authority in relation to specific situations subject to governmental supervision, particularly in classrooms, restrict[ed] the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions and the right of schoolchildren to believe or not believe”. The practice infringed those rights because “the restrictions [were] incompatible with the State's duty to respect neutrality in the exercise of public authority, particularly in the field of education” (§ 57 of the judgment)….


C.  Submissions of the third-party interveners

1.  The Governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Russian Federation, Greece, Lithuania, Malta and the Republic of San Marino

47.  In their joint observations submitted at the hearing, the Governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Russian Federation, Greece, Lithuania, Malta and the Republic of San Marino indicated that in their view the Chamber's reasoning had been based on a misunderstanding of the concept of “neutrality”, which the Chamber had confused with “secularism”. They pointed out that there was a huge diversity of Church-State arrangements in Europe and that more than half the population of Europe lived in non-secular States. They added that State symbols inevitably had a place in state education and that many of these had a religious origin, the Cross – which was both a national and a religious symbol – being the most visible example. In their view, in non-secular European States the presence of religious symbols in the public space was widely tolerated by the secular population as part of national identity. States should not have to divest themselves of part of their cultural identity simply because that identity was of religious origin. The position adopted by the Chamber was not an expression of the pluralism manifest in the Convention system, but an expression of the values of a secular State. To extend it to the whole of Europe would represent the “Americanisation” of Europe in that a single and unique rule and a rigid separation of Church and State would be binding on everyone.

In their submission, favouring secularism was a political position that, whilst respectable, was not neutral. Accordingly, in the educational sphere a State that supported the secular as opposed to the religious was not being neutral. Similarly, removing crucifixes from classrooms where they had always been would not be devoid of educational consequences. In reality, whether the State opted to allow or prohibit the presence of crucifixes in classrooms, the important factor was the degree to which the curriculum contextualised and taught children tolerance and pluralism.

The intervening Governments acknowledged that there might be circumstances where the arrangements by the State were unacceptable. The burden of proof should remain on the individual, however, and the Court should intervene only in extreme cases….

68.  The Court takes the view that the decision whether or not to perpetuate a tradition falls in principle within the margin of appreciation of the respondent State. The Court must moreover take into account the fact that Europe is marked by a great diversity between the States of which it is composed, particularly in the sphere of cultural and historical development. It emphasises, however, that the reference to a tradition cannot relieve a Contracting State of its obligation to respect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention and its Protocols.

As regards the Government's opinion on the meaning of the crucifix, the Court notes that the Consiglio di Stato and the Court of Cassation have diverging views in that regard and that the Constitutional Court has not given a ruling (see paragraphs 16 and 23 above). It is not for the Court to take a position regarding a domestic debate among domestic courts.

69.  The fact remains that the Contracting States enjoy a margin of appreciation in their efforts to reconcile exercise of the functions they assume in relation to education and teaching with respect for the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions (see paragraphs 61-62 above).

That applies to organisation of the school environment and to the setting and planning of the curriculum (as the Court has already pointed out: see essentially the judgments cited above in the cases of Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen, §§ 50-53; Folgerø, § 84; and Zengin, §§ 51-52; paragraph 62 above). The Court therefore has a duty in principle to respect the Contracting States' decisions in these matters, including the place they accord to religion, provided that those decisions do not lead to a form of indoctrination (ibid.).

70.  The Court concludes in the present case that the decision whether crucifixes should be present in State-school classrooms is, in principle, a matter falling within the margin of appreciation of the respondent State. Moreover, the fact that there is no European consensus on the question of the presence of religious symbols in State schools (see paragraphs 26-28 above) speaks in favour of that approach.

This margin of appreciation, however, goes hand in hand with European supervision (see, for example, mutatis mutandis, Leyla ┼×ahin, cited above, § 110), the Court's task in the present case being to determine whether the limit mentioned in paragraph 69 above has been exceeded.

71.  In that connection, it is true that by prescribing the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms – a sign which, whether or not it is accorded in addition a secular symbolic value, undoubtedly refers to Christianity – the regulations confer on the country's majority religion preponderant visibility in the school environment.

That is not in itself sufficient, however, to denote a process of indoctrination on the respondent State's part and establish a breach of the requirements of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

The Court refers on this point, mutatis mutandis, to the previously cited Folgerø and Zengin judgments. In the Folgerø case, in which it was called upon to examine the content of “Christianity, religion and philosophy” (KRL) lessons, it found that the fact that the syllabus gave a larger share to knowledge of the Christian religion than to that of other religions and philosophies could not in itself be viewed as a departure from the principles of pluralism and objectivity amounting to indoctrination. It explained that in view of the place occupied by Christianity in the history and tradition of the respondent State – Norway – this question had to be regarded as falling within the margin of appreciation left to it in planning and setting the curriculum (see Folgerø, cited above, § 89). It reached a similar conclusion in the context of “religious culture and ethics” classes in Turkish schools, where the syllabus gave greater prominence to knowledge of Islam on the ground that, notwithstanding the State's secular nature, Islam was the majority religion practised in Turkey (see Zengin, cited above, § 63).

72.  Furthermore, a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and this point is of importance in the Court's view, particularly having regard to the principle of neutrality (see paragraph 60 above). It cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities (see on these points Folgerø and Zengin, cited above, § 94 and § 64 respectively).

73.  The Court observes that, in its judgment of 3 November 2009, the Chamber agreed with the submission that the display of crucifixes in classrooms would have a significant impact on the second and third applicants, aged eleven and thirteen at the time. The Chamber found that, in the context of public education, crucifixes, which it was impossible not to notice in classrooms, were necessarily perceived as an integral part of the school environment and could therefore be considered “powerful external symbols” within the meaning of the decision in Dahlab, cited above (see §§ 54 and 55 of the judgment).

The Grand Chamber does not agree with that approach. It considers that that decision cannot serve as a basis in this case because the facts of the two cases are entirely different.

It points out that the case of Dahlab concerned the measure prohibiting the applicant from wearing the Islamic headscarf while teaching, which was intended to protect the religious beliefs of the pupils and their parents and to apply the principle of denominational neutrality in schools enshrined in domestic law. After observing that the authorities had duly weighed the competing interests involved, the Court held, having regard above all to the tender age of the children for whom the applicant was responsible, that the authorities had not exceeded their margin of appreciation.

74.  Moreover, the effects of the greater visibility which the presence of the crucifix gives to Christianity in schools needs to be further placed in perspective by consideration of the following points. Firstly, the presence of crucifixes is not associated with compulsory teaching about Christianity (see the comparative-law information set out in Zengin, cited above, § 33). Secondly, according to the indications provided by the Government, Italy opens up the school environment in parallel to other religions. The Government indicated in this connection that it was not forbidden for pupils to wear Islamic headscarves or other symbols or apparel having a religious connotation; alternative arrangements were possible to help schooling fit in with non-majority religious practices; the beginning and end of Ramadan were “often celebrated” in schools; and optional religious education could be organised in schools for “all recognised religious creeds” (see paragraph 39 above). Moreover, there was nothing to suggest that the authorities were intolerant of pupils who believed in other religions, were non-believers or who held non-religious philosophical convictions.

In addition, the applicants did not assert that the presence of the crucifix in classrooms had encouraged the development of teaching practices with a proselytising tendency, or claim that the second and third applicants had ever experienced a tendentious reference to that presence by a teacher in the exercise of his or her functions.

75.  Lastly, the Court notes that the first applicant retained in full her right as a parent to enlighten and advise her children, to exercise in their regard her natural functions as educator and to guide them on a path in line with her own philosophical convictions (see, in particular, Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen and Valsamis, cited above, §§ 54 and 31 respectively).

76.  It follows from the foregoing that, in deciding to keep crucifixes in the classrooms of the State school attended by the first applicant's children, the authorities acted within the limits of the margin of appreciation left to the respondent State in the context of its obligation to respect, in the exercise of the functions it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

77.  The Court accordingly concludes that there has been no violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 in respect of the first applicant. It further considers that no separate issue arises under Article 9 of the Convention….


[For fun, read Judge Bonello’s concurrence, recalling his concurrence in Al-Skeini …]



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.

1.3  I believe that before joining any crusade to demonise the crucifix, we should start by placing the presence of that emblem in Italian schools in its rightful historical perspective. For many centuries, virtually the only education in Italy was provided by the Church, its religious orders and organisations – and very few besides. Many, if not most schools, colleges, universities and other institutes of learning in Italy had been founded, funded, or run by the Church, its members or its offshoots. The milestones of history turned education and Christianity into almost interchangeable notions, and because of this, the age-old presence of the crucifix in Italian schools should come as no shock or surprise. In fact, its absence would have come as a surprise and a shock.

1.4  Until relatively recently, the “secular” State had hardly bothered with education, and, by default, had delegated that primary function to Christian institutions. Only slowly did the State start assuming its responsibilities to educate and to offer the population some alternatives to a virtual religious monopoly on education. The presence of the crucifix in Italian schools only testifies to this compelling and millennial historical reality – it could loosely be said that it has been there since schools have been there. Now, a court in a glass box a thousand kilometres away has been engaged to veto overnight what has survived countless generations. The Court has been asked to be an accomplice in a major act of cultural vandalism. I believe William Faulkner went to the core of the issue: the past is never dead. In fact it is not even past. Like it or not, the perfumes and the stench of history will always be with you.

1.5  It is uninformed nonsense to assert that the presence of the crucifix in Italian schools bears witness to a reactionary fascist measure imposed, in between gulps of castor oil, by Signor Mussolini. His circulars merely took formal notice of a historical reality that had predated him by several centuries and, pace Ms Lautsi's anti-crucifix vitriol, may still survive him for a long time. This Court ought to be ever cautious in taking liberties with other peoples' liberties, including the liberty of cherishing their own cultural imprinting. Whatever that is, it is unrepeatable. Nations do not fashion their histories on the spur of the moment….

4.1  Very recently, this Court was called upon to determine whether a ban ordered by the Turkish authorities on the distribution of Guillaume Apollinaire's novel Les onze mille verges could be justified in a democratic society. That novel would only fail to qualify as fierce pornography through the most lavish disregard of contemporary standards of morality.[3] Yet the Court manfully saved that smear of transcendental smut on the ground that it formed part of European cultural heritage.[4]

4.2  It would have been quite bizarre, in my view, for this Court to protect and redeem an under-the-counter, over-the-borderline discharge of nauseous obscenity on the ground of its distinctly faint “European heritage” merit, and, in the same breath, deny European heritage value to an emblem recognised over the centuries by millions of Europeans as a timeless symbol of redemption through universal love.


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August 10, 2016

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Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School

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