Crucifix in the classroom: NYU Law's Joseph Weiler on winning side in landmark ruling on religious symbols by European Court of Human Rights

On March 17, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark ruling in a case in which Joseph H.H. Weiler, Joseph Straus Professor of Law and University Professor, represented the prevailing parties. Reversing an earlier decision by the court’s Chamber in Lautsi v. Italy, the Grand Chamber upheld the right of Italy to display crucifixes in public school classrooms. Weiler argued the case pro bono on June 30 on behalf of eight countries which joined Italy in the appeal: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, the Russian Federation, and San Marino.
 
In comments issued after the Grand Chamber ruled, Weiler said the decision represented  "a rejection of a ‘One Size Fits All’ Europe and a vindication of its pluralist tradition in which equal dignity is accorded to the constitutional choices of a France and a Britain, an Italy and a Sweden, and the other myriad formulae for recognizing religious symbols in the public space. "Europe," he added, "is special in that it guarantees at the private level both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, but does not force its various peoples to disown in its public spaces what for many is an important part of the history and identity of their states, a part recognized even by those who do not share the same religion or any religion at all." Weiler opined that "it is this special combination of private and public liberties, reflecting a particular spirit of tolerance, which explains how in countries such as, say, Britain or Denmark to give but two examples, where there is an established state church no less – Anglican and Lutheran, respectively – Catholics, Jews, Muslims and, of course, the many citizens who profess no religious faith, can be entirely ‘at home,’ play a full role in public life including the holding of the highest office, and feel it is ‘their country’ no less than those belonging to the established church."

Not surprisingly, the Vatican issued a statement praising the decision, saying "that the culture of the rights of man must not be in opposition to the religious foundations of European civilization, to which Christianity has made an essential contribution." Others had a different view. In a blog post on the website of the European Journal of International Law, of which Weiler is editor-in-chief, one commentator called the ruling “a defeat for everyone,” criticizing the Grand Chamber for the quality of its reasoning.

Posted March 24, 2011

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