Crucifixes in Italian schools barred

A European news story that I thought would be easy feed for Northern Ireland tv and radio journalists: the European Court of Human Rights has banned crucifixes being displayed in Italian schools:

While this was carried by BBC News website and Irish Times newspaper, I was a little surprised no media picked it up in Northern Ireland.

An Italian national went to the European Court of Human Rights to petition against her child having to attend a school in northern Italy, where every classroom had a crucifix displayed. The ECHR found in her favour, declaring that the crucifixes must be removed. This has produced expected hostile reaction across Italian political opinion.

So why hasn’t this happened in Ireland (North and/or South)?

A distinction with the Italian case appears to be that while religious freedom is codified in the Irish constitution, there is no obligation by the state of Ireland to provide for secondary education (only that all schools — regardless of religion/denomination — are treated equally under the law).

A consequence of this is that “national schools” in Ireland are not public property or publicly administered. Most are governed by the Catholic Church.

Similarly, in Northern Ireland no one is obliged to enrol in a Catholic secondary school.

Thus, in both cases, I would see difficulty in presenting a case of state discrimination (under current law), as such schools (North or South) are not, strictly speaking, public areas. Displaying crucifixes in municipal buildings, on the other hand, would be crossing that line, as it were.

In the USA, with its clear codification of separation of church and state, it’s well known that prayer in school is prohibited, as well as religious displays on municipal grounds.

However, what is not so well known is how the American federal government applies this principle to private organisations. Essentially, as federal government grants to private organisations are not obligatory, the compact is that the recipient organisation cannot discriminate on any civil rights grounds, including religion or denomination.

An example would be an all-boy’s school that would refuse federal aid if it had to admit girls.

This principle does not apply in the Republic of Ireland (where the state has no obligation to fund schools) nor Northern Ireland (where the government funds denominational schools).

A line of argument against the display of religious symbols in schools is to prevent/limit offence to a more culturally diverse society (i.e. non-Catholic believers), and/or to provide a secular learning environment.

In the Republic of Ireland, this is arguably now more difficult, as a new curriculum provides for the incorporation of religious instructions into secular subjects.

But for a secularist in Northern Ireland it is more challenging, as Religious Education is a formal part of the curriculum. Most schools facilitate church assemblies as part of the school programme. And integrated schools have a particularly religious ethos; they’re far from secular.

So, the lesson of the ECHR ruling on Italian crucifixes for traditional education policy makers in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is to abdicate the state from administrative responsibility (laissez-fare) or provide religious/denominational options for all (NI/GB multi-culturalism).

The lesson for Italy is to repeal the crucifix mandatory law, while at the same time hand over the education estate to the Catholic Church (a la Ireland).

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