Lautsi and Others v. Itlay

Lautsi and Others v. Italy
Issuing body: European Court of Human Rights
Application number: 30814/06
Application filed: 27 Jul 2006
Communication issued: 3 Jul 2008
Judgment rendered: 18 Mar 2011

The applicants are Italian nationals, Finnish-born Ms. Soile Lautsi and her two sons, Dataico and Sami Albertin, who live in Italy. During the school year 2001-2001 the sons attended a State school where a crucifix was attached to the wall of each classroom. The first applicant and her husband, Massimo Albertin, raised the question of the presence of religious symbols in the classrooms. When the school’s governors decided to keep the religious symbols in the classrooms, the first applicant brought proceedings in the Administrative Court, complaining of infringement of the principle of secularism. Her argument was found to be ill-founded because the presence of crucifixes in the classroom was based on royal decrees of 1924 and 1928. The Administrative Court referred the issue of constitutionality to the Constitutional Court, which found the question inadmissible, since the decrees were regulations, not law subject to constitutional review.

On 17 March 2005 the Administrative Court dismissed the application lodged by Ms. Lautsi, holding that the provisions of the royal decrees in question were still in force and that the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms did not breach the principle of the secular nature of the State, which was “part of the legal heritage of Europe and the western democracies.” The court took the view that the crucifix was a symbol of Christianity in general rather than of Catholicism alone, so that it served as a point of reference for other creeds. The court further identified the crucifix as a historical and cultural symbol, possessing an “identity-linked value” for the Italian people, and serving as a symbol of a value system underpinning the Italian Constitution. A further appeal by Ms. Lautsi resulted in confirmation by the Consiglio di Stato that the crucifixes symbolized civil values characteristic of Italian civilization and compatible with the principle of secularism, namely “tolerance, affirmation of one’s rights, the autonomy of one’s moral conscience vis-à-via authority, human solidarity, and the refusal of any form or discrimination,” which could fulfill a highly educational function.

The applicant, relying upon Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (right to education) and Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion), and upon Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination), made application to the European Court of Human Rights in July 2006. In a Chamber Judgment of 3 November 2009, the Court held, unanimously, that there had been violations of each of these provisions. The Italian government requested a Grand Chamber hearing, which took place on 20 July 2010.

In its decision announced on 18 March 2011, the Grand Chamber found, by 15 votes to 2, no violation of Article 2 of Protocol 1:  “The Court found that, while the crucifix was above all a religious symbol, there was no evidence … that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.” The subjective perception of the applicant was not sufficient to establish a breach of Article 2 of Protocol 1. Moreover, “the decision whether crucifixes should be present in classrooms was, in principle, a matter falling within the margin of appreciation of the State, particularly where there was no European consensus,” though that margin of appreciation “went hand in hand with supervision by the Court, whose task was to satisfy itself that the choice did not amount to a form of indoctrination.”

The Court also concluded that no further issue arose under Article 9 and that there was no cause to examine the case under Article 14.

Judges Bonello, Power and Rozakis each expressed a concurring opinion. Judge Malinverni expressed a dissenting opinion, joined by Judge Kalaydjieva.

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