Ever since Hugo Black succeeded in incorporating his anti-religious prejudices and Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” into Supreme Court jurisprudence, Americans have known how a story like this is supposed to end: A parent who comes into a community objects to expressions of that community’s religious traditions in its schools.  There is no indication that other parents share her objections or that these traditions do any harm.  Nonetheless, the courts intervene and order that those traditions no longer be expressed in the schools.  Thus is the tyranny of the minority exercised through the agency of the courts, which have played an indispensable role in subverting traditional values.

But this story just turned out differently in Europe.  In 2006, Soile Lautsi, an ungrateful Finnish immigrant to Italy, decided that Italy was too Italian for her tastes.  So she sued to have the crucifixes removed from her children’s school, contending that the presence of crucifixes in Italian public schools violated Article 9 of the European Convention, which guarantees freedom of religion, and also that their presence violated the state’s supposed duty to remain “neutral” in matters of religion.  In 2009, a lower E.U. court agreed with the ungrateful immigrant, ruling that the presence of crucifixes in Italian classrooms was “emotionally disturbing for pupils of non-Christian religions or those who professed no religion” and undermined “educational pluralism.”

The court’s decision aroused widespread indignation in Italy, which appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights, where Italy was supported by an admirably ecumenical coalition of Eastern Orthodox Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Russia, Oriental Orthodox Armenia, and Roman Catholic Lithuania, Malta, and San Marino.  Not only are all of these nations Christian, but the history of many of them reflects the importance of the cross as a national symbol.  Malta’s flag bears the George Cross, awarded to the whole island by George VI for its gallantry in World War II, and Malta has been symbolized for centuries by the Maltese Cross.  One of Lithuania’s premier symbols of resistance to both czarist and Soviet oppression is the Hill of Crosses, where Lithuanians began leaving crosses after the 1831 Uprising against czarist rule and where they continued to leave tens of thousands of crosses even after the Soviets bulldozed the hill several times.  By contrast, no national government intervened to support Lautsi, though she did enjoy the support of a coalition of “human rights” busybodies of the type that have worked assiduously to undermine both popular and national sovereignty, including the International Commission of Jurists, Interights, and Human Rights Watch.

The European Court of Human Rights sided with Italy, noting that “the decision whether or not to perpetuate a tradition falls in principle within the margin of appreciation of the . . . State.”  If the U.S. Supreme Court showed a similar respect for federalism, many American public schools today would still have prayer.  The European court noted that “The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions,” but even this limitation is far more generous to religion than is anything found in American jurisprudence: Italian public schools offer voluntary instruction in Catholicism, something the overwhelming majority of Italian parents take advantage of.

Particularly encouraging was the concurring opinion by Maltese judge Giovanni Bonello, who captured the sentiments felt by the overwhelming majority of Italians: “A European court should not be asked to bankrupt centuries of European tradition.  No court, certainly not this Court, should rob the Italians of part of their cultural patrimony. . . . The Court has been asked to be an accomplice to a major act of cultural vandalism.  I believe William Faulkner went to the core of the issue: the past is never dead.  In fact it is not even past.”

Bonello also carefully distinguished between freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by European law, and “secularism, pluralism, the separation of Church and State, religious neutrality, [and] religious tolerance,” which are not: “With or without a crucifix on a schoolroom wall, the Lautsis enjoyed the most absolute and untrammeled freedom of conscience and religion as demarcated by the [European] Convention.  The presence of a crucifix in a State classroom might conceivably be viewed as a betrayal of secularism and an unjustifiable failure of the regime of separation between Church and State, but these doctrines . . . are nowhere mandated by the Convention, nor are they necessarily constitutive elements of the freedoms of conscience and religion.”

Bonello also brought common sense to bear: “Millions of Italian schoolchildren have, over the centuries, been exposed to the crucifix in schools.  This has neither turned Italy into a confessional state, nor Italians into citizens of a theocracy.”  Far from representing neutrality, removal of the crucifixes “would have been a positive and aggressive espousal of agnosticism or of secularism. . . . Keeping a symbol where it has always been is no act of intolerance by believers or cultural traditionalists.  Dislodging it would be an act of intolerance by agnostics and secularists.”

Finally, Bonello squarely rejected another notion that we Americans have become sadly accustomed to, that the aggrieved member of a religious minority automatically trumps the religious majority: “All the parents of all the thirty pupils in an Italian classroom enjoy equally the fundamental Convention right to have their children receive teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. . . . The parents of one pupil want that to be ‘non-crucifix schooling,’ and the parents of the other twenty-nine, exercising their equally fundamental freedom of decision, want that schooling to be ‘crucifix’ schooling.  No one has so far suggested any reason why the will of the parents of one pupil should prevail, and that of the parents of the other twenty-nine pupils founder.”

Judge Bonello is, of course, exactly right.  Unfortunately, he is just one of 17 judges on the European Court of Human Rights, and any right of Italy to continue to display in its classrooms what Bonello called “a timeless symbol of redemption through universal love” must be viewed as contingent so long as Italy surrenders any of its sovereignty to supranational bodies like the European Union.  Still, we can all rejoice that the crosses get to stay, for now.