Home » The Crucifix in the Classroom: On Freedom of Choice in the School

The Crucifix in the Classroom: On Freedom of Choice in the School

by Ilaria Valenzi

by Ilaria Valenzi. Lawyer, researcher in the law of religions, Confronti Study Center.

Again the matter of the school crucifix and again a judgement, to define the contours of meaning, limits and relationship with the principles of secularism and non-discrimination. This time it was the turn of the Italian Supreme Court to rule on a cyclically divisive issue, going beyond legal issues and taking on a political meaning. The story is well-known: a teacher usually removes the symbol from the wall and then puts it back in place at the end of the lesson, considering its presence to be a limitation upon the freedom of teaching. The head teacher issues an order to leave the symbol, and soon follows a disciplinary sanction imposed on the teacher, who appeals to the labor judge for discrimination. The first peculiarity of the case is a complaint against the behavior of the teacher from the class assembly, which expresses itself in favor of the display of the crucifix. The second peculiarity is that the Supreme Court is called to rule on the effects of the symbol not on students—see the dispute between Soile Tuulikki Lautsi and the Italian State regarding the request for the removal of the crucifix from Italian classrooms—but on the dissenting teacher.

More than 60 pages of a highly-anticipated ruling certainly do not lend themselves to superficial reading. It is all the more so in the present case, in which the Supreme Court chooses with conviction a way to settle the dispute, making use of the principle of reasonable accommodation (a search for a balance between conflicting positions, while preserving the protection of the weakest subjects) and acting with a “mild prudence” that characterizes the judge’s vocation, inserted into a confrontational and contradictory dialogue between the parties.

In this context, the immediate rush to accredit an alleged victory by the highest representatives of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and the confirmation of this position by the main newspapers are striking. We witness a flattened complexity, asserting the primacy of the absolute right to the crucifix which, on closer inspection, has very little to do with the faith in question and which looks more like a “tired race” against the inevitable change of collective sensitivities. The ruling practically winks at the identity politics that recent nationalisms have brought back into vogue. Trying to return some of the main points examined in the ruling, it is necessary to start from the observation that the posting of the crucifix does not derive from a legal obligation, but is the result of a fragile regulatory framework of the pre-constitutional era, the expression of an authoritarian and confessional state. It is necessary to give a constitutionally-oriented interpretation of these norms, such as to guarantee the principles of equality, religious freedom, and secularism. The first logical element of this interpretation is that—reading the decision of the Supreme Court—“the authoritative display of the crucifix in the classroom is not compatible with the supreme principle of secular state.” This is a revolution in terms of legal politics, which refuses the identification of the state with a specific creed and does not allow the occupation of public space by a single faith, even a majority one.

Hence the model that the Supreme Court intends to privilege takes shape: displaying the crucifix is not an obligation but a possibility, the option of which is left to the free and participatory decision of the school community. The latter becomes an active subject in exercising choice in the space dedicated to one’s plural soul, eventually deciding to exhibit as many symbols as correspond to the ethnic and religious composition of the group. After all, the school wall is a fundamentally blank space, a white wall, but it can become a place of pluralism.

It is striking that this blank space is preserved, which degrades one of the options available to the class and is no longer the only alternative model to the display of the symbol. One solution refers to the Italian model of additive secularism, “open to the different identities that appear in a society in which different faiths, religions, cultures have to coexist.”

However, no discrimination against the teacher was recognized. This is based on the well-known formula of the crucifix as a passive symbol, already used by the European Court of Human Rights, according to which the school has not offended the function of public teaching in a religious sense, although the posting of the crucifix may be unwelcome to the teacher. The public education system remains objective, pluralistic, and critically-oriented, says the Court—despite the crucifix, one might say.

We will have to wait for the maturity of the school communities to develop and interpret the new possibilities in an innovative manner.

Ph. © Debby Hudson from Unsplash

Ilaria Valenzi

Ilaria Valenzi

Lawyer, researcher in the law of religions, Confronti Study Center

Articoli correlati

Leave a Comment