ROME (CNS) – Italy’s highest court of appeal has ruled that public school classrooms can approve the presence of the crucifix because it does not discriminate against anyone.
The court, however, clarified that all religious symbols can also be “welcome” as long as this is decided in a democratic, civil and “gentle” way by students and faculty together.
This means, he says, that all decisions regarding their attendance should never be imposed and should seek “reasonable accommodation” between the different positions or beliefs of those in the school community, which includes respect for freedom of religion. of somebody; in essence, decisions cannot come from the “tyranny” of the majority or the veto of an individual.
Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation – the country’s court of last resort – released its 65-page brief explaining its ruling on September 9 in an appeal against the display of the crucifix in classrooms involving an Italian high school teacher whose claims were first dismissed in a lower court in 2013 and before an appeals court in 2014.
The full-time Italian literature teacher said his freedom of conscience had been violated and that he wanted the freedom to teach without the presence of a crucifix on the wall behind him.
According to court proceedings, the teacher would walk into the classroom, remove the crucifix from the wall for the duration of his lesson, and then hang it up when he had finished teaching.
The teacher also claimed he was discriminated against for not accepting the presence of the crucifix when the school principal suspended him without pay for 30 days. The suspension came about for not having followed a mandate issued by the principal ordering all teachers to respect the presence of the crucifix in the class in question because it was a decision approved by the majority of the students during the ‘an assembly.
The Supreme Court said it seized the appeal because it represented a question of “paramount and particular importance”, that is, what is the best way to “balance” a number. of freedoms and rights in a public classroom, especially in a secular country where Church and State are separate.
The case was also different from other previous but similar cases involving the presence of a crucifix because a group of students wanted it displayed, not government officials or school administrators, and the aggrieved party was not. not a student or a parent, but an employee of the school.
In its final decision, the court dismissed part of the teacher’s appeal, saying the presence of a crucifix in a classroom is not a “discriminatory act” against a person. without faith or of a different faith. The court cited the 2011 Grand Chamber decision of the European Court of Human Rights on Lautsi v. Italy, which determined that nations are free to regulate religious symbols as they see fit as long as state authorities do not seek to indoctrinate or violate basic rights. with their decisions.
The court also reiterated that the crucifix does not indoctrinate because it is a “passive symbol” in which there is no evidence that its presence has any influence on impressionable students, let alone on an adult teacher.
The Supreme Court noted that there is no real legislation that provides for or makes compulsory the presence of a crucifix in public schools and that it would be unconstitutional for any public “power” – official or entity – to do so. make mandatory.
What does exist is a series of decrees issued during the Italian fascist period in the 1920s, which includes the crucifix among a list of recommended school furniture and decorations.
The Supreme Court has said that such standards can always be interpreted in a way that does not run counter to the current constitution guaranteeing religious freedom by allowing the school community – not a government or public institution – decide which symbols are displayed. The state must be neutral towards different faiths, but it is legitimate that its people be allowed to express or practice their own beliefs, including atheism, in the public sphere and respect this right for all others. .
What is essential in this decision-making process, the tribunal said, is that it is an open, respectful and “good-humored” process of discussion and discernment that involves the entire school body and provides “reasonable accommodation” for all positions.
This is why the court determined that although the teacher was not discriminated against by the presence of the crucifix, the warrant and the penalties issued by the principal were illegitimate as it was a warrant based on a majority vote that ignored all sides. – in particular that of the dissident teacher.
Freedom of religion and religion does not call for banning religious symbols in classrooms, he said, however, explaining that “public space cannot be occupied by a single religious faith, even if it is in the majority “.
At the same time, the crucifix is part of Italy’s vast cultural heritage and part of its history and popular tradition, he added. As such, the cross and the passion of Christ also came to represent certain universal values such as human dignity, peace, brotherhood and solidarity, for non-believers as well, he said.
The school community can and must come together and decide, “at the grassroots” and in complete autonomy of the influence of the State, the symbols it chooses to welcome and in a way that promotes fruitful and respectful coexistence. of people of different faiths and faiths, the court said.
State neutrality does not mean “denying or ignoring the contributions that religious values can make to the growth of a society,” he said; it is open and inclusive to different cultures, religions and beliefs, without canceling them out, and it seeks to guarantee their equal place and dignity.
In fact, he says, any “request for the elimination of any element or representation that does not coincide with an individual’s personal religious belief is a request that suffers from rigidity.”
Public school must be “an open place that fosters inclusion and promotes the encounter between different religions and philosophical convictions, and where students can learn more about their beliefs and traditions and those of others,” he said. declared.
Allowing the display of different religious symbols in a classroom through civil dialogue and deliberation, he added, teaches everyone how vital and fundamental mutual respect is.
It teaches how a democratic society requires a constant and mutual ‘balancing’ of principles and rights to find concrete solutions so as to avoid falling into a ‘tyranny of the majority’, chaos and conflict of competing values or the law. veto of one or a strong minority, he said.