european court of human rights, ECHR, crucifix
AP Photo/Christian Lutz
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, eastern France, March 18, 2009.

What Power Does Human Rights Court Have in Classroom Crucifix Case?

November 04, 2009 05:30 PM
by James Sullivan
The European Court of Human Rights recently barred Italian classrooms from displaying crucifixes. What does this ruling mean on a practical level?

Crucifixes Banned in Italian Schools

In a statement, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said the decades-old Italian practice of hanging a crucifix on school classroom walls “restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions, and the right of children to believe or not to believe.”

Elaborating on its decision, the court explained: “The Court was unable to grasp how the display, in classrooms in State schools, of a symbol that could reasonably be associated with Catholicism (the majority religion in Italy) could serve the educational pluralism that was essential to the preservation of a ‘democratic society’ as that was conceived by the Convention, a pluralism that was recognised by the Italian Constitutional Court.”

An Italian woman, Soile Lautsi, brought the case to the ECHR after Italian courts ruled against her.

The court’s ruling incensed many in the predominately Catholic country: The BBC quoted one politician that called the decision “shameful,” and reported that the Vatican called it “wrong and myopic.”

Italians have criticized the court for ideological bias, claiming its members lack an understanding of the multiple meanings of the cross, and its important role in Italian history and culture. The Italian government plans to appeal the ruling.

What jurisdiction does the court have, and what obligation does Italy have to obey the court’s edicts? The answer is most clear in the context of the history of the court.

Background: The European Court of Human Rights and its authority

The ECHR, headquartered in Strasbourg, France, was established in 1959 to supervise enforcement of the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe comprises 47 member countries, including Italy, and “seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals.” The organization differs from the more recently established, 27-member European Union.

A PDF copy of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is available for download from the Council of Europe.

The court hears cases brought by individuals that believe their human rights, as defined by the Convention, have been violated, as well as cases brought by states against other states. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the court “may award financial compensation, and its decisions often require changes in national law. … The court’s decisions are binding on all signatories.”

Member states, by ratifying the Convention and its protocols, have committed to offering their citizens the rights provided by the Convention, and “have undertaken to ‘abide by the final judgments of the Court in any case to which they are parties’ (Article 46 paragraph 1, of the European Convention on Human Rights).” Lautsi was awarded 5,000 euros in damages from the crucifix case.

After a judgment has been issued, a Committee of Ministers supervises the steps a respondent country takes toward executing the judgment.

If Italy does not succeed in its appeal, then by the terms of its membership in the Council of Europe it will be forced to obey the court’s ruling.

The Council of Europe maintains a Web site detailing the progress states have made in the execution of ECHR’s judgments. Nuances in the laws regarding how court judgments are handled at the national level, and which authorities are trusted with their execution, can be found in the “Frequently asked questions” section.

“If the courts or any other relevant national authorities fail to take the necessary measures, the State’s responsibility is at stake and other domestic authorities might have to intervene in order to achieve the expected result: while the State is indeed free, within certain limits, to choose the means of execution it is legally bound to attain the execution result required.”

Reference: ECHR

Visit the official Web site of the European Court of Human Rights for further information about the structure of the court, news, hearings and press releases.

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