Culture & Religion
November Tue 03, 2009
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In 2006, an Italian lady of Finnish origin lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg alleging that the display of the crucifix in the State school attended by their children was contrary to her right to ensure their education and teaching in conformity with her religious and philosophical convictions, within the meaning of Article 2 of Protocol No.1. The display of the cross had also breached her freedom of conviction and religion, as protected by Article 9 of the Convention.
Yesterday the Court concluded, unanimously, that there had been a violation of the articles mentioned previously and awarded the applicant 5,000 Euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage. Ilsussidiario.net has asked Professor Joseph Weiler of an immediate opinion on this decision.
Statement by Professor Joseph Weiler, Director, Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization, NYU School of Law.
"I am opposed in principle to "fast food" treatment of questions of such gravity and to "sound bite" analysis of judicial decisions which are the result of lengthy examination and judicial consideration. So, one must allow time for careful study of the decisions before a considered opinion can be offered.
On first impression however, I did not appreciate the line of government which tried to present the cross as a symbol which transcends its religious origins and has a laique meaning. That is certainly the case in some instance such as the Red Cross, but it is an inappropriate basis on which to defend this case. One must be honest: The crucifix hangs in the class room because it is a religious symbol expressing the religious sensibilities of many families who send their children to school and for whom it would be absurd that in the context in which their children are brought up and educated religion would seem to be treated as taboo. These religious families must understand however that the crucifix could give the impression of the school endorsing the religion and that this is indeed a serious problem for atheist or non Christian families which might be badly interpreted by their children.
However one cannot fall yet again into the trap that laicité is a neutral position. The laique and non Christian families must understand that removing the cross and declaring the school precinct a religious free zone, is as offensive to their religious friends and neighbors as the cross is to them.
We live in a multi cultural society, of religious and secular, Christian, Jew and Muslim. We need to strive to find ways that the laique child can learn to respect the religious conviction of his fellow student expressed by, for example the crucifix (and where appropriate maybe a crescent or star of David, depending on the social context of the school) and that creatively we would find a way, just as visibly and symbolically potent, for the religious kid to respect the secular choice of his school mate. We do not want to hide these choices in the school yard. We want to teach tolerance -- which means accepting the otherness of other, not hiding the otherness of others. That is our major educational challenge.
On first impression, what is profoundly disappointing in this decision is 1. that it seems to fail to understand entirely the new multicultural social reality of our society and the educational challenge it creates -- teaching our young to respect and accept the otherness of the other and interpret the Convention in the light of that challenge; and 2 that it hearkens back to the 18th century believing that laïcité and a religious free school precinct is a way the State expresses its neutrality. The secular child walks into such a school precinct without any challenge to his identity. The religiously naked school yard confirms his world view. For the religious child it challenges his world view. There must be more sophisticated and tolerant ways to deal with this deep question of identity and education.
The first impression is that the type of thinking reflected in the decision is the wrong way to teach tolerance in our complex society. But further study will be required to confirm this first impression."
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