Reflected in conflicting recent court decisions, Europeans are struggling with whether the crucifix, the fundamental symbol of Christianity, still has a place in public school classrooms.
Catholic University law school Professor Geoff Watson says the larger question framing the issue is whether secularism is ascendant or on the wane in the Europe. It appears that believers in either proposition can find evidence to support them.
At a Jan. 29 faculty lunch, Watson presented a synopsis of his as-yet-unpublished book chapter, “Secularism Resurrected? The European Court of Human Rights after Lautsi,” which will be part of a larger volume on secularism that is being edited by Douglas Kmiec, a professor of law at Pepperdine University and former dean of The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.
Outlining his draft chapter for colleagues, Watson discussed at length Lautsi v. Italy, a case in which an immigrant atheist objected to the presence of crucifixes on the walls of Italian public schools.
An Italian court initially swept aside the legal challenge, but the European Court of Human Rights found for the plaintiff. Later, a higher court, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, ultimately reversed the lower court and rejected by 15-2 the challenge to the public display of crucifixes in the classrooms of a state-run school.
Some cultural commentators interpreted the decision as an endorsement of the place of Christianity in European public life.
“But recent developments, headscarf cases and other changes in European law, and even Lautsi itself – all suggest that European secularism is more alive than dead,” wrote Watson. He noted that for one thing, European courts seem unable to agree whether religious symbols are “passive symbols” or “powerful external symbols.”
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights contains no Establishment Clause prohibiting the establishment of a national religion or the preference by governments of one religion over another.
The cloudiness of the European stance on state-endorsed religion may leave more power in the hands of judges than America’s system would allow.
Regarding the lower court ruling in Lautsi that initially supported the challenge to crucifixes on the wall, Watson observed that “I think that the national origin of the court judges may have been a significant factor.”
The principal theme of the upcoming book, that a secular view of public life is losing ground in Europe as expressed through recent court decisions, is not a view that Watson wholly subscribes to.
“Secularism is one of many people at the dinner table; it is not sitting outside in the cold,” he writes.