IHRC Discussion Paper Part 10 – Appendix: Lautsi v Italy

This is an extract from a discussion paper written by the Irish Human Rights Commission about religious education and human rights. Atheist Ireland is preparing a response to this discussion paper, and we welcome your feedback on it.

ECtHR decision in Lautsi v. Italy

In Lautsi v. Italy19 the European Court held that the freedom not to believe in any religion was not limited to the absence of religious education, but rather extended to practices and symbols which expressed a belief, a religion, or atheism.

This freedom was found to deserve “special protection” if it was the State which expressed a belief and dissenters could only avoid being placed in a situation by “making disproportionate efforts and acts of sacrifice”.

Further the Court found that there was an obligation on the State to refrain from imposing even indirectly, beliefs in places where people are dependant on it or in places where they are vulnerable. To this end the Court acknowledged the particular vulnerability of children within the school system.

Furthermore, in considering whether the exposure of crucifixes in classrooms was objective, critical and pluralistic the European Court took into account the particular nature of the religious symbol and its impact on students from a young age, especially the children of the applicant.

The European Court considered that in countries where the vast population of the country belongs to a particular religion, the manifestation of the rites and symbols of this religion without restriction of place and manner may constitute a pressure on students who do not practise that religion or those who adhere to another religion.

The European Court stated:

The State is obliged to religious neutrality in the context of compulsory public education where attendance is required irrespective of religion and must seek to instill in students critical thinking.

This case has now been referred (appealed) to the Grand Chamber and
Judgment is awaited.

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