Appearing before 17 judges in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, University Professor and Joseph Straus Professor of Law Joseph Weiler waded into the emotionally charged debate over religious symbols in public buildings. Wearing a yarmulke, Weiler presented arguments on behalf of eight countries (Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, the Russian Federation, and San Marino) asking the ECHR appellate panel to overturn a November ruling by a lower chamber, which held that Italy could not display crucifixes in public school classrooms.

Part of Weiler’s argument, presented on June 30, addressed the nature of a symbol such as the crucifix: “Inevitably in public education, the State and its symbols have a place. Many of these, however, have a religious origin or contemporary religious identity. In Europe, the Cross is the most visible example appearing as it does on endless flags, crests, buildings etc. It is wrong to argue, as some have, that it is only or merely a national symbol. But it is equally wrong to argue, as some have, that it has only religious significance. It is both.” The logical extension of the lower chamber’s ruling, Weiler said, would be that pictures of the queen would have to be removed from public spaces in Britain, because she is both head of state and titular head of the Church of England.

Weiler also contended that a law mandating a “naked wall” and “naked public square” is not neutral; it is an endorsement of secularism over religion. The principle embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights “represents a unique balance between the individual liberty of freedom of and from religion,” Weiler said. “It is legally disingenuous to adopt a political position which splits our society, and to claim that somehow it is neutral.”

The court is not expected to rule until later this year.

Posted on July 14, 2010