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Crucifixes, Margin of Appreciation and Consensus: The Grand Chamber Ruling in Lautsi v Italy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 August 2011

Paolo Ronchi
Balliol College, Oxford


In March 2011, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights reversed the decision of the Court's Second Section in Lautsi v Italy. The case clearly demonstrates how controversial the use of religious symbols in the public environment has become. This article sets out the complicated framework of the case, assesses the judgment and concludes that the Grand Chamber's decision is unfortunate and, in many respects, objectionable. It will be shown that this decision has implications regarding the malleable nature of the doctrines of the margin of appreciation and consensus, as well as the development of Strasbourg's application of double standards in its case law regarding the public display of religious symbols.

Copyright © Ecclesiastical Law Society 2011

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2 [2011] ECHR 30814/06. Save where the contrary is stated, all references in this article to Lautsi are to the decision of the Grand Chamber.

3 BVerfGE 93, 1 – Kruzifix: see Kommers, D, The Constitutional Jurisprudence of the Federal Republic of Germany (second edition, Durham, NC, 1997), pp 472476Google Scholar. Later, the Bavarian parliament passed a law that imposed the display of a crucifix because of its historical and cultural value. However, if objections based on serious and reasonable arguments involving faith or a world view are raised at a particular school, the head teacher should seek agreement. If this is not possible, (s)he is to find an ad hoc solution, keeping a fair balance of the pupils' religious and ideological beliefs but taking into account the will of the majority. This appears to be an attempt to side-step the constitutional judgment.

4 See decision 14 November 2008, n 288, <>, accessed 10 April 2011. This ruling was later partially confirmed by the Spanish administrative Court of Appeal, decision 14 December 2009, n 3250, <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

5 Case No 203/1989, <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

6 Ibid at para 4.

7 It must be noted that in 2009 was the second section European Court of Human Rights in Lautsi v Italy, when quoting the sources of the principle of laicità, at para 25, in error – Article 9 of the Italian Constitution does deal with the development of culture and the protection of the historical and artistic heritage of Italy.

8 Case No 203/1989, at para 4, emphasis added.

9 Case No 508/2000, <>, accessed 10 April 2011, emphasis added.

10 Case No 334/1994, at para 3.2 <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

11 Relations between the Italian state and the Roman Catholic Church ‘are regulated by the Lateran pacts. Amendments to such pacts that are accepted by both parties shall not require the procedure of constitutional amendments’.

12 Italian Constitution, Art 8(2).

13 Ibid, Art 8(3).

14 See Royal Decree No 1297, 26 April 1928, art 119 and Royal Decree No 965, 30 April 1924, art 118. Both deal with the crucifix in state school classrooms, listing it in the ‘furnishing of all classrooms’ of state schools.

15 The aim of the Fascist government was to create a confessional system, in fact established later on, in 1929, by the Lateran Treaty, whose Article 1 proclaimed Catholicism as the official state religion. This article was subsequently repealed by the amendment to the Lateran Treaty in 1984. See Giovannelli, M, ‘The 1984 covenant between the Republic of Italy and the Vatican: a retrospective analysis after fifteen years’, (2000) 42 Journal of Church and State 529CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Article 7(1).

17 Case No 389/2004, <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

18 According to Article 135 of the Italian Constitution, the Constitutional Court judges, among other things, ‘controversies on the constitutional legitimacy of laws and enactments having force of law issued by state and regions’ (emphasis added).

19 Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale Veneto, decision No 1110, 17 March 2005 at para 16.1, <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

20 Ibid at para 12.4, emphasis added.

21 Consiglio di Stato, decision No 556, 13 February 2006, para 3, <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

23 Mancini, S, ‘Taking secularism (not too) seriously: the Italian crucifix case’, (2006) 1 Religion and Human RightsCrossRefGoogle Scholar 187.

24 G Zagrebelsky, , ‘Stato e chiesa: cittadini e cattolici’, (2007) 3 Diritto PubblicoGoogle Scholar 715.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid, p 717.

28 Court order, 23 October 2003, <>, accessed 12 April 2011.

29 Corte di Cassazione, decision No 439, 1 March 2000 <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

30 In this case a member of an electoral commission refused, according to the lower judge without justification, to carry out his duty because a crucifix was displayed in the polling station and was, consequently, condemned on the basis of Article 108 of the Presidential Decree No 361/1957.

31 Dahlab v Switzerland [2001] ECHR 42393/98.

32 Lautsi (2009 judgment at first instance) at para 55.

33 See decision of the Italian constitutional Court No 508/2000 at para 3 <>, accessed 10 April 2011.

34 Lautsi (2009 judgment at first instance) at paras 57–58, emphasis added. This general idea of neutrality had already been expressed in general terms by Strasbourg in Hasan and Chaush v Bulgaria [2000] ECHR 30985/96; (2002) 34 EHRR 1339 at para 78.

35 Lautsi at paras 26–28.

36 Ibid at para 68.

37 Ibid at para 71.

38 Ibid at para 69. The judgment cites the judgments in Kjeldsen v Denmark [1976] ECHR 5095/71 at paras 50–53; Folgerø v Norway [2007] ECHR 15472/02 at para 84 and Zengin v Turkey [2007] ECHR 1448/04 at paras 51–52.

39 Weiler, J, ‘La Corte di Strasburgo e il crocefisso: una decisione imbarazzante’, (2010) 1 Quaderni costituzionali 148Google Scholar.

40 Dahlab.

41 Lautsi at para 73.

42 Appeal of the Italian Government, para 15.A <>, accessed 20 April 2011.

43 Lautsi at para 72.

44 Ibid.

45 It is worth noting that the European Court of Human Rights seems to have a sort of veiled intolerance towards Islam. See Lebreton, G, ‘L'islam devant la CEDH’, (2002) Revue du Droit Public et de la Science Politique en France et à l'Étranger, 1493Google Scholar.

46 Lautsi at para 74.

47 Ibid at para 66.

48 Ibid at para 75.

49 L Zucca, ‘A comment on Lautsi’, Blog of European Journal of International Law, 19 March 2011, <>, accessed 15 April 2011.

50 Judge Powell, concurring opinion in Lautsi.

51 B Conforti, ‘Crocifisso nelle scuole, una sentenza che lascia perplessi’, available at <>, accessed 18 April 2011.

52 Harris, D et al. , Harris, O'Boyle & Warbrick: Law of the European Convention on Human Rights (second edition, Oxford, 2009), p 11Google Scholar. For a particular reference to religion see Lewis, T, ‘What not to wear: religious rights, the European Court, and the margin of appreciation’, (2007) 2 International & Comparative Law Quarterly 397Google ScholarPubMed.

53 Lautsi at para 70.

54 Judge Malinverni, Dissenting opinion in Lautsi at para 1.

55 Conforti, ‘Crocifisso nelle scuole’.

56 See eg Ronchi, P, ‘A, B and C v Ireland: Europe's Roe v Wade still has to wait?’, (2011) 127 LQR 365369Google Scholar.

57 Lester, Lord, ‘The European Convention in the new architecture of Europe’, (1996) 1 Public Law 6Google Scholar.

58 [2001] ECHR 42393/98.

59 [2008] ECHR 27058/05.

60 [2005] ECHR 44774/98.

61 Gibson, N, ‘Right to education in conformity with philosophical convictions: Lautsi v Italy’, (2010) European Human Rights Law Review 212Google Scholar.