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Normative fault-lines of trans-national human rights jurisprudence: National pride and religious prejudice in the European legal space


The article explores the relationship between religious pluralism and national-majoritarian models of social cohesion in European human rights jurisprudence. Comparing the German, French and British interpretation of the ‘social cohesion limitation’ of freedom of religion it contends that, at the national level, concerns for social cohesion are fuelled by attitudes towards religious diversity that range from indifference to intolerance and that are difficult to reconcile with the normative premises of religious pluralism in a democratic society. The second section of the article traces the relationship between religious pluralism and social cohesion in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. The analysis suggests that the diversity of national-majoritarian approaches to social cohesion in Europe prevents the Court from ensuring an effective trans-national protection of religious pluralism. The third section turns to the controversial Lautsi judgments of the European Court of Human Rights to place the Court’s approach to religious minority protection in the context of trans-national judicial politics in the European legal space. The concluding section suggests an alternative approach to religious pluralism and social cohesion that vindicates religious diversity and does justice to the counter-majoritarian telos of human rights protection.

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1 ECtHR (Grand Chamber), Lautsi and Others v Italy, 18 March 2011, following on from ECtHR (Second Section), Lautsi v Italy, 3 November 2009.

2 For an overview of the Italian debate following the 2009 Lautsi judgment of the Second Section see Mancini, S, ‘The Crucifix Rage: Supranational Constitutionalism Bumps against the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty’ (2010) 6(1) European Constitutional Law Review 627.

3 Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) paras 66, 67.

4 Ibid para 68.

5 ECtHR, Kokkinakis v Greece, 25 May 1993, para 31.

6 Ibid para 33.

7 That is, the question of whether German school laws can require displaying a cross or crucifix in classrooms of public schools.

8 Decision of the Bayerischer Verwaltungsgerichtshof of 3 June 1991 as cited by the German Federal Constitutional Court, BVerfG, 1 BvR 1087/91 of 16 May 1995 (Kruzifix), para 10; all translations from German and French into English are mine.

9 BVerfG, 1 BvR 1087/91 (n 8) para 72.

10 VG Stuttgart, 15 K 532/99, Neue Zeitschrift für Verwaltungsrecht (2000) 959; VGH Baden-Württemberg, 4 S 1439/00, Neue Juristische Wochenschrift (2001) 2899; BVerwG, 2 C 21.01, Juristenzeitung (2002) 254.

11 BVerwG, 2 C 21.01 (n 10) paras 7–8.

12 BVerfG, 2 BvR 1436/02 of 3 June 2003 (Kopftuch Ludin). According to German constitutional law, decisions with an essential impact on fundamental rights require a parliamentary statute (so-called Wesentlichkeitstheorie). Because in the federal German system the Länder have the competence for school legislation it was their responsibility to draft the respective legislation.

13 Ibid para 65.

14 Ibid paras 113, 125.

15 See section 86(3) Hessisches Schulgesetz and section 38(2) Schulgesetz Baden-Württemberg.

16 Other Länder, by contrast, have opted for a general ban or limitation of the display of religious symbols in public schools that does not grant Christianity a privileged position; see e.g. section 2 of the Gesetz zu Artikel 29 der Verfassung von Berlin and section 59b IV Schulgesetz Bremen.

17 Judgment of the Verwaltungsgerichtshof Baden-Württemberg of 14 March 2007, 4 S 516/07; Judgment of the Bayerischer Verfassungsgerichtshof of 15 January 2007, Vf. 11-VII-05.

18 Gerstenberg, O, ‘Freedom of Conscience in Public Schools’ (2005) 3(1) International Journal of Constitutional Law 94, 96.

19 Laborde, C, ‘Secular Philosophy and Muslim Headscarves in School’ (2005) 13(3) Journal of Political Philosophy 305, 316.

20 Conseil d’État, Avis No 346893, 27 November 1989.

21 In Kherouaa, Kachour, Balo, Kizic (No 130.394, 2 November 1992), for example, the Conseil d’État struck down a school regulation on the ground that it was too general and indiscriminate, thus violating the pupils’ freedom of religion; in Mlle Saglamer (No 169.522, 27 November 1996) the court stressed that penalties for wearing a headscarf could only be applied if it was established that the behaviour of the pupil amounted to an act of pressure or proselytism or interfered with the public order in school. In Aoukili (No 159.981, 10 March 1995), by contrast, it upheld the exclusion of students in the more specific context of physical education classes.

22 Circulaire du 20 septembre 1994 relative au port de signes ostentatoires dans les établissements scolaires, Bulletin officiel de l’Éducation nationale, No 3, 29 septembre 1994.

23 Cited in McGoldrick, D, Human Rights and Religion: The Islamic Headscarf Debate in Europe (Hart, Oxford, 2006) 82.

24 Commission de Réflexion sur l’application du principe de la laïcité dans la République, Rapport au Président de la République (11 December 2003) paras 13, 58.

25 Ibid paras 51, 56–8.

26 Loi no 2004-225 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées public.

27 Journal Officiel de la République Française, Année 2004. – No 17 [2] A.N. (C.R.), 1463: ‘L’islam est d’implantation relativement récente chez nous. Sa croyance est parfaitement respectable. Mais, comme pour toutes les autres, c’est aux tenants de cette religion de s’adapter à nos valeurs et traditions et non l’inverse.’

28 Law n. 2010-1192 of 11 October 2010, Journal Officiel de la République Française, 12 October 2010.

29 Assemblée nationale, ‘Rapport d’information n. 2262, au nom de la mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile intégral sur le territoire national’ (26 January 2010); see further the discussion in Mancini, S and Rosenfeld, M, ‘Unveiling the Limits of Tolerance’ in Ungureanu, C and Zucca, L (eds), Law, State and Religion in the New Europe (CUP, Cambridge, 2012) 160, 175–6.

30 Conseil Constitutionnel, Décision no 2010-613 DC, 07 October 2010. The law was upheld except for its ban of full-faced veils in public places of worship.

31 That the Grand Chamber in Lautsi classifies as ‘philosophical convictions’: ‘The Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the “level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance” required for them to be considered “convictions” within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1. … More precisely, their views must be regarded as “philosophical convictions” within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No 1 …’, Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (see n 1) 57–8.

32 Moruzzi, N, ‘A Problem with Headscarves: Contemporary Complexities of Political and Social Identity’ (1994) 22(4) Political Theory 653, 664.

33 For an account of the de facto permeation of French public life with Catholic values see Hervieu-Léger, D, ‘The Role of Religion in Establishing Social Cohesion’ in Michalski, K (ed), Conditions of European Solidarity, vol II: Religion in the New Europe (Central European University Press, Budapest, 2006) 4561.

34 Modood, T, ‘Anti-Essentialism, Multiculturalism and the “Recognition” of Religious Groups’ (1998) 6(4) Journal of Political Philosophy 378, 393.

35 Poulter, S, ‘Muslim Headscarves in School: Contrasting Legal Approaches in England and France’ (1997) 17(1) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 43, 73–4.

36 Lord Bingham’s dictum in Regina (SB) v Governors of Denbigh High School [2006] UKHL 15 (Begum) is paradigmatic in this regard: ‘It is important to stress at the outset that this case concerns a particular pupil in a particular school in a particular place at a particular time. … The House is not, and could not be, invited to rule whether Islamic dress, or any feature of Islamic dress, should or should not be permitted in the schools of this country’.

37 [2004] EWHC 1389 (Admin), para 43.

38 Ibid para 74.

39 Ibid para 42.

40 [2005] EWCA Civ 199, para 74.

41 Begum (n 36) para 50.

42 Ibid para 54.

43 Ibid para 97.

44 See, e.g., R (on the application of X) v Headteacher of Y School, [2007] EWHC 298 (Admin), stressing the importance of school uniforms in ‘promoting uniformity and an ethos of equality and cohesion’; and R (on the application of Playfoot) v Governing Body of Millais School, [2007] EWHC 1698 (Admin), according to which the school uniform aims at enhancing school identity, minimizing differences of appearances, preventing bullying, and promoting high standards of conduct.

45 [2008] EWHC 1865 (Admin) para 85. Outside the educational context, an employment tribunal considered obiter that an employer’s uniform policy requiring the Christian applicant to conceal a silver cross necklace under her uniform would not have been justified had it amounted to indirect religious discrimination under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. While the uniform policy was designed to achieve the ‘legitimate aim … of brand uniformity’, and ‘served an important purpose in giving the employer a consistent, professional and reassuring image worldwide’, it was disproportionate in that it failed ‘to distinguish an item which represents the core of an individual’s being, such as a religious symbol, from an item worn purely frivolously or as a piece of cosmetic jewellery’; reported in Eweida v British Airways Plc [2009] ICR 303, paras 17, 18.

46 This despite the fact that the school uniform policy was not directly tailored to expressions of religious diversity to ensure social cohesion; see N Gibson’s excellent analysis, ‘Faith in the Courts: Religious Dress and Human Rights’ (2007) 66(3) Cambridge Law Journal 657–97.

47 Begum (n 36) para 84.

48 At the same time, broadening the scope of inquiry would arguably show that the thrust of the analysis also applies to other members of the Council of Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland; see the recent instructive report by Amnesty International, Choice and Prejudice: Discrimination against Muslims in Europe (London: 2012).

49 ECtHR (Grand Chamber) Leyla Şahin v Turkey, 10 November 2005, following on from ECtHR (Fourth Section) Leyla Şahin and Others v Turkey, 29 June 2004.

50 Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49) para 108.

51 Şahin (Fourth Section) (n 49) para 96.

52 Evans, C, ‘The “Islamic Scarf” in the European Court of Human Rights’ (2006) 7(1) Melbourne Journal of International Law 52, 65.

53 Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49) paras 99, 121.

54 ECtHR, Dahlab v Switzerland, Admissibility Decision of 15 February 2001.

55 Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49) para 107, with further references.

56 Dahlab (n 54).

57 ECtHR, Dogru v France, 4 December 2008; ECt HR, Kervanci v France, 4 December 2008.

58 See above, section 2.

59 Dogru (n 57) para 70.

60 Ibid para 74.

61 Ibid para 74. The applicant had submitted the unrest and disruption had started with teachers’ strike action against the headscarf on the pretext of defending secularism (at para 44), and that her proposal to wear a hat or balaclava instead of the headscarf was indicative of her conciliatory attitude and willingness to compromise (paras 44, 75).

62 Ibid para 67 (emphasis added).

63 Ibid para 63; see further Kervanci (n 57) para 63 and Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49) paras 108–109.

64 Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49), Dissenting Opinion of Judge Tulkens, at 5.

65 Benvenisti, E, ‘Margin of Appreciation, Consensus, and Universal Standards’ (1999) 31 NYU Journal of International Law and Politics 843, 847, according to whom the use of margin of appreciation doctrine is inappropriate when conflicts between national majorities and religious minorities are examined because it ‘assists the majorities in burdening politically powerless minorities’.

66 Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49) para 107.

67 The debate spans the European Union and the European Convention system. Contributions that focus on the latter include Krisch, N, ‘The Open Architecture of European Human Rights Law’ (2008) 71(2) Modern Law Review 183216; Sadurski, W, ‘Partnering with Strasbourg: Constitutionalisation of the European Court of Human Rights, the Accession of Central and Eastern European States to the Council of Europe, and the Idea of Pilot Judgments’ (2009) 9(3) Human Rights Law Review 397453; Stone Sweet, A, ‘On the Constitutionalisation of the Convention: The European Court of Human Rights as a Constitutional Court’ (2009) Revue trimestrielle des droits de l’homme 80, also available at <>; Stone Sweet, A, ‘A Cosmopolitan Legal Order: Constitutional Pluralism and Rights Adjudication in Europe’ (2012) 1(1) Global Constitutionalism 5390; and L Helfer and A-M Slaughter’s seminal article ‘Toward a Theory of Effective Supranational Adjudication’ (1997) 107(2) Yale Law Journal 273–391.

68 Stone Sweet (2012) (n 67) 74, and his magnum opus with H Keller (eds), A Europe of Rights (OUP, Oxford, 2008).

69 See, e.g., the judgments of the German Federal Constitutional Court in Görgülü (2 BvR 1481/04 of 14 October 2004) and Preventive Detention (2 BvR 2365/09 of 4 May 2011), and the interpretations by Krisch and Stone Sweet (2012) (n 67).

70 Krisch (n 67) 196.

71 Stone Sweet (2012) (n 67) 74; similarly Helfer and Slaughter (n 67) 317.

72 Stone Sweet (2012) (n 67) 73.

73 Krisch (n 67) 216.

74 Sadurski (n 67) 409–10; and further B Bowring, ‘Russia’s Accession to the Council of Europe and Human Rights: Compliance or Cross-Purposes?’ (1997) 6 European Human Rights Law Review 628–43.

75 See G Letsas’ remarkable A Theory of Interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights (OUP, Oxford, 2007).

76 Instruction no 2666 of the Minister of Education, Universities and Research of 3 October 2002, cited in Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) para 24.

77 Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale (TAR) per il Veneto, Decision no. 1110 of 17 March 2005; Consiglio di Stato, Judgment no. 556 of 13 April 2006.

78 TAR Veneto (n 77) paras 11.7, 11.9.

79 Court of Cassation, Judgment no. 439 of 1 March 2000, cited in Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) para 23.

80 Mancini (see n 2).

81 Lautsi (Second Section) (n 1).

82 Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) para 67.

83 Ibid para 67.

84 Ibid para 71.

85 BVerfG, 2 BvR 1436/02 (n 12); see further above, section 2.

86 Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) paras 72–73; see further above, section 3.

87 Dahlab (n 54).

88 Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) para 74.

89 Ibid para 67.

90 Ibid para 70.

91 Stone Sweet (2012) (n 67).

92 See Joseph Weiler’s early contribution to the debate, favouring ‘human-rights judicial review by courts not directly part of the polity the measures of which come under review’, Weiler, J, ‘Fundamental Rights and Fundamental Boundaries: On the Conflict of Standards and Values in the Protection of Human Rights in the European Legal Space’ in his The Constitution of Europe (CUP, Cambridge, 1999) 102, 126; and E Benvenisti (n 65) who stresses the role of the European Convention as an external device to correct deficiencies in the national democratic system.

93 Mancini and Rosenfeld (n 29) 182.

94 Commenting on the French headscarf ban, Etienne Balibar points to the ‘tragic character’ of the situation of women who ‘become the stake of a merciless struggle for prestige between two male powers which try to control them, one on behalf of patriarchal authority wrapped up in religion, the other on behalf of national authority wrapped up in secularism’, Balibar, E, ‘Dissonances within Laïcité’ (2004) 11(3) Constellations 353, 359.

95 See above, sections 2 and 3.

96 Whereas, for example, in its much criticized judgment of Otto Preminger Institut, the ECtHR deferred to the decision of national authorities to protect the religious feelings of Austria’s Catholic majority against disparagement, the Court has adopted a similar approach to a publication in Turkey that contained an abusive attack on the Prophet of Islam. Having established that in absence of a ‘uniform European conception of the requirements of the protection of the rights of others in relation to attacks on their religious convictions’ Convention States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation, the Court held that ‘the measure taken in respect of the statements in issue was intended to provide protection against offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by Muslims’ and could therefore ‘reasonably be held to have met a “pressing social need”’; see ECtHR, Otto Preminger Institut v Austria, 20 September 1994 and I.A. v Turkey, 13 September 2005, paras 25, 30. In a similar case brought by Moroccan Muslim organizations in relation to cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Denmark, the Court declined jurisdiction, see ECtHR, Ben El Mahi and Others v Denmark, Admissibility Decision of 11 December 2006.

97 See Lautsi (Second Section), above n 1 at para 56.

98 J Weiler, ‘Lautsi: Crucifix in the Classroom Redux’, (1 June 2010) 21(1) EJIL Editorial; the Editorial draws on arguments that Weiler develops in more detail in his Un’ Europa Cristiana. Un saggio esplorativo (Bur Biblioteca Univ. Rizzoli: 2003).

99 On the shortcomings of the laic interpretation of state neutrality see above, section 2.

100 On the differences between legal prescription and permission see e.g. Nagel, T, ‘Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy’ (1987) 16(3) Philosophy and Public Affairs 215–40.

101 See TAR Veneto (n 77) para 11.9; BVerfG, 2 BvR 1436/02 (n 12) para 113 (Dissenting Opinion).

102 Evans (n 52) 65.

103 John Locke, Epistola de Tolerantia (1689), translated by W Popple, reprinted in Mendus, S and Horton, J (eds), A Letter Concerning Toleration in Focus (Routledge, London, 1991) 12, 52; on the ambivalent implications of Locke’s theory of toleration for contemporary European liberalism see Augenstein, D, ‘Excluded Publics – Included Privates: The Janus-Headed Nature of the Liberal Public-Private Divide’ in Michelon, C, Clunie, D, McCorkindale, C and Psarras, H (eds), The Public in Law (Ashgate, Farnham, 2012) 133–47.

104 Habermas, J and Derrida, J, ‘February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together: A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in the Core of Europe’ (2003) 10(3) Constellations 291, 294.

105 Kokkinakis (n 5) para 31.

106 Şahin (Grand Chamber) (n 49) para 107.

107 Stone Sweet (2012) and Krisch (n 67); see further above, section 4.

108 See above, section 2.

109 BVerfG 2 BvR 1436/02 (n 12) para 65.

110 R v Aberdare Girls’ High School Governors (see n 45).

111 See above, section 3.

112 Lautsi (Grand Chamber) (n 1) para 74.

113 Ibid, Concurring Opinion of Judge Bonello, para 1.1.

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