(Photo: Demonstrator outside European Court of Human Rights with leaflet saying in Italian and French: “Let’s defend the crucifix,” 30 June 2010/Vincent Kessler)
Italy and 10 other European states urged the continent’s top human rights court on Wednesday to overturn its ban on crucifixes in schools, arguing they were signs of national identity and not overtly religious symbols. The alliance of traditionally Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian countries backing Italy’s appeal against the ban which was handed down last November reflected their concern that the court had set a precedent for strict secularism across Europe.
A group of 33 European Parliament members also supported Rome’s appeal against the ban (full text here), which shocked the country and the Vatican at a time when Italy and other European states are debating immigration and religious rights for Muslims.
Most of Italy’s allies are smaller nations — Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, San Marino and Romania — but they also include Russia. Moscow’s participation reflects the growing activism of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has joined the Roman Catholic Church in denouncing the widespread secularization of a continent once synonymous with the term “Christendom.”
Joseph Weiler, speaking for eight of the 10 states backing Italy, said that upholding the ban would mean several countries would have to remove crosses from their flags and God from national anthems, such as Britain’s. “I don’t think that everyone who sings ‘God Save The Queen’ believes in God,” Italy’s Ansa news agency quoted him as saying. “Britain may decide someday to change or drop this phrase, but that’s not a decision this court can make.”
The court acknowledged limits on its jurisdiction last week when it ruled there was no general right to same-sex marriage in Europe because 41 of the 47 countries that have adopted the European Convention on Human Rights do not allow it. Few European states have laws requiring crucifixes but none stepped forward to support the ban.