A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights held that it’s a violation of the religious and educational rights of Italian children for them to attend classes in which a crucifix hangs on the wall.
Crucifixes have traditionally been part of the decor in the once-intensely Catholic Italy. Yet, if they were ever supposed to act as silent proselytizers upon ranks of studious schoolchildren, they did not.
Italy has drifted away from the old faith — birth rates are among the lowest in Europe, and only 21 percent of Italian Catholics said they attended weekly Mass, as of 2006 — but the cross has remained, ubiquitous and familiar, a pillar of the national character.
In 2002, a Finnish-born mother of two in the Italian school system objected to the crucifixes in their classrooms. The school principal was unmoved. Italy’s Constitutional Court dismissed her complaint, so she filed a case in Strasbourg, France, which she won.
The response? Outrage, a swelling popular rebellion, even, against the prospect that because of one woman’s agitation, the entire country may have to rid its schools of a treasured symbol that as much bespeaks Italian cultural identity as it does Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Mayors and town councils across Italy are not only refusing to remove crucifixes from their schools, but are buying new ones and putting them up in places where they don’t already hang.
In Rome, the merchants association has reportedly urged members to put a crucifix in their shop windows. The mayor of a town called Montecchio Maggiore pitched in to buy a 6-foot crucifix and erect it at the entrance to the town hall.
“The gesture was necessary,” Mayor Milena Cecchetto said, “to defend what to us and to our country stands for tradition and is at the root of our values. Whoever wants to eliminate it is not interested in secularism, but in paving the way for other forms of religious expression.”
In the Lombardy region, schools in the League Monza have been given seven days to make sure a crucifix hangs in every classroom or face fines. The Italian education minister calls the cross a symbol of Italian tradition, saying, “No one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity.” Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi said. “Our country can only be described as Christian. Even an atheist has to agree with this.”
Other Europeans are watching Italy’s situation with open alarm. The president of Poland and the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church have been speaking out against the ban, which could ultimately apply to all European Union countries. It’s common in both Catholic Poland and in Orthodox Greece and Greek Cyprus for crucifixes or icons to be displayed in public places.
“Nobody in Poland will accept the message that you can’t hang crosses in schools,” Polish President Lech Kaczynski said this week during Independence Day festivities in Warsaw.
In the United States, we are, of course, used to this process. Tireless campaigners such as atheist Michael Newdow and the lawyerly squads at the American Civil Liberties Union have sought for years to stamp out such apparently unseemly conflations of church and state as the Pledge of Allegiance, pregame prayers and the construction of nativity scenes in public places.
In Italy, though, there’s a special irony. The European Court of Human Rights was set up after World War II by democratic free countries in an effort to avoid a repeat of what happened during the Nazi era.
The European Convention on Human Rights was written in general terms by the victorious countries to embody the ancient freedoms that, for instance, Britons enjoyed. Yet, the code is now being interpreted to ban things that free people have long enjoyed doing in their societies.
You do not have to be fond of the crucifix, or sympathetic to the outraged mayors of Italy, to find something utterly repulsive and joyless in the steady march to remove anything that might offend anyone, in the name of respect and
Examiner Columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.