Atheist Ireland response to European Court ruling on crucifixes in classrooms

The European Court of Human Rights today ruled that Italian State schools may display crucifixes on classroom walls, overturning an earlier judgment to the contrary.

Today’s judgment lays down many important points of human rights law in favour of secularism, and it leaves open the possibility of further legal challenges about crucifixes in classrooms where the overall school environment is not secular.

The judgment highlights the obligation of States to convey school teaching in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner, enabling pupils to develop a critical mind particularly with regard to religion in a calm atmosphere free of any proselytism.

The Court found that it is up to each State to decide how to treat this issue, as long as they do not exceed the limit of pursuing an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions.

In this particular case, because the Italian education system is already secular, with an overall school environment that respects all religions, and because the crucifix is not associated with compulsory teaching of Christianity, it found that the display of a crucifix could be seen as a passive symbol.

But these circumstances are not the case in Ireland, where most primary schools are not religiously neutral, but have a religious ethos that permeates the entire school day, and where the Catholic Church itself accepts that the right to opt out of this religious ethos is not always possible in practice.

Just last week the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination “noted with concern that the education system (in Ireland) is still largely denominational and is mainly dominated by the Catholic Church.” This is the fourth time in recent years that UN bodies have raised the issue of freedom of conscience in Irish schools.

Also significantly, the Court today rejected the argument by Italy that the crucifix is not a religious symbol, but is a cultural and ethical one. This is an important victory for secularism, as it prevents religious symbols from being introduced by stealth into secular environments.


“File:St. Ladislaus High School, crucifix, 2020 Szob.jpg” by Globetrotter19 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Michael Nugent


  1. Avatar
    JohnMWhite March 19, 2011

    I fail to see how a man nailed to a bit of wood ‘for your sins’ can be seen as a passive symbol. It is meant to be a guilt trip, and while Italian schools may respect all faiths, people of certain faiths or no faiths have been historically assaulted and abused by the faith that symbol represents. There are certainly bigger fish to fry than a crucifix on a wall, but this judgment does not seem sound to me. It seems more a compromise than anything else, to try to not annoy either side, regardless of the merits of the case.

  2. Avatar
    myke April 22, 2011

    May as well put up other religious symbols too if such thing are considered “passive symbol”.