By Frank Wessling
A crucifix on the wall generally says that the people who live or work here are Catholics. There is Catholic influence, Catholic belief operating here in some way.
But now a court in Europe says it was given “no evidence” that crucifixes on the walls in an Italian school “have an influence on pupils.”
In one way the March 18 ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court for Human Rights was encouraging. One mother of a student in a 30-pupil elementary school class objected several years ago to the crucifixes in her child’s school. As a nonbeliever, she said, her child had a right to a completely nonreligious school atmosphere. In November of 2009 a lesser division of the ECHR agreed that her rights had been violated and the school was ordered to remove crucifixes. This was an outrage to most Italians, and the government appealed.
This time the court ruled 15 to 2 that one person’s right to a certain expression of religious freedom – in the case, freedom from religion – could not invalidate the rights of 29 others to the common expression of their religious freedom. The court was helped to this conclusion by its finding that crucifixes on the walls appeared to have no influence on children.
It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry over this result. Religious symbols in public use are OK if their meaning is not evident? OK if they merely stand as a cultural artifact, a vague national memory? OK because they appear to have no power?
At least they can stay on the wall and be available for questions by the curious.
But who will be there to give an adequate answer to questions when there’s no evidence that the crucifix is speaking to a generation of children?