ROME – Italy’s main advocacy group for religious non-believers, the “Union of Rational Atheists and Agnostics,” is calling a recent court decision on the island of Sardinia upholding the right of public offices to display crucifixes on their walls “ugly” and vowing to press the fight at higher levels.
“It’s a decisively ugly ruling,” said Adele Orioli, an official of the atheists’ group.
The case originated in 2009, when the mayor of the small town of Mandas issued an order that crucifixes should be displayed in all public offices, and even imposed a 500-Euro fine for failure to comply. The atheists’ union quickly filed a lawsuit challenging the order, after which it was withdrawn.
However, the atheists’ union insisted on taking its case anyway to Sardinia’s Regional Administrative Tribunal, known by its Italian acronym as “Tar,” in order to try to establish the principle that such displays of traditionally Catholic belief violate freedom of religion provisions in both the Italian constitution and in European agreements.
Instead, the court held on Wednesday that there is no legal basis for overturning the mayor’s order, which effectively clears the way for crucifixes to be displayed in any public space in the town.
An island in the Mediterranean Sea with a population of around 1.7 million, Sardinia is considered an autonomous province of Italy.
The regional court based its decision on a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in another case out of Italy, challenging the display crucifixes in public schools. The European court held that under the principle of subsidiarity, each country that makes up the European Union must be left space to decide how to express its culture and identity, and that the mere fact of having religious symbolism in public spaces is not a violation of religious freedom.
“Otherwise, in the name of religious liberty we would paradoxically instead be limiting or even denying this liberty by ending up excluding every expression of it from public space,” the European court found. It held the display of a crucifix is not a form of “indoctrination,” but “an expression of the cultural and religious identities of countries with a Christian tradition.”
That case was followed with great interest in the Vatican, where it was seen as a potential breakthrough towards what emeritus Pope Benedict XVI referred to as “healthy secularism,” meaning a form of church/state separation that does not have to mean hostility to religious faith.
The atheists’ union said it plans to challenge the Sardinian ruling, with an appeal to higher Italian courts and potentially even the European Court of Human Rights – arguing that the European panel’s early finding dealt only with schools and not other public spaces, such as courthouses and government buildings.
“The administration of justice has already accustomed us to peculiar assertions, to use a gentle euphemism, such as that the crucifix can somehow also be a symbolism of secularity,” Orioli said. “It’s certainly strange to appeal to religious freedom, as the regional court does, to uphold the legitimacy of the obligatory presence of a specific religious symbol in the public offices of a state that’s supposed to be secular, at least on paper.
“The court sees a potential conflict between a ‘culture of human rights’ and the ‘religious foundations of European civilization,’” Orioli said, “and thinks it can solve that conflict by imposing one religious faith on everyone.”