First Plenary Session – Grégor Puppinck

Natalie Wright Romeri-Lewis
ICLRS Research Advisor

Grégor Puppinck from France, Director of the European Center for Law and Justice, began by explaining that as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg resolves cases from 47 states on a variety of legal topics, the court is faced with the question of how to respect minority beliefs in the face of pluralistic societies. Two cases served as the vehicle for his presentation. The first illustrates the point that people who claim a right based on religion should refrain from also claiming the right based on conscientiousness. In the first case, a Jehovah Witness refused to participate in the military of Armenia on grounds of a conscientious objection. Mr. Puppink explained that a conscientious objection is not a right in itself but derived from a behavior not in line with the “common good.” In contrast, objections based on religion need not be ground in philosophic or conscientious grounds. Because militaries are not always involved in ill pursuits, a religious objection is needed to exempt one from all military service. Because a general and permanent objection to military service is more of a religious objection, someone may only conscientiously object to military service when the military is not in line with the common good.

In the second case the court was asked whether Italy’s national tradition of hanging crucifixes in public school classrooms should continue to exist in a pluralist society. The lower court found in favor of the Muslim mother reasoning that children should study in a neutral environment that promote analytical thinking. After 10 European countries backed Italy and 11 more countries publicly supported the use of crucifixes in public classrooms, the court’s Grand Chamber ruled that crucifixes could remain present. The higher court then answered the question: Do majority religions have specific legitimacy in states? After analyzing the purpose of a school and the impact of a cross, the Grand Chamber decided that the presence of a cross is insufficient to either (1) indoctrinate a child (force a child to believe or not to believe) or (2) cause a mother to withdraw her children from school. As compared to the head-scarf cases in Italy, the court ruled that the government could ask people to abstain from manifesting their religion as long as they have the ability to pursue their religion. It is easier to ban than to enforce. While a teacher in Italy might be asked to take off her headscarf in a classroom, a teacher in Turkey does not need to do so because Turkey’s reality includes a deep Muslim identity and tradition. The court explained that basing a ruling on tradition is permissible as long as the tradition does not force someone to adopt the religion.