03 November 2009

When in Rome... again

Ruth Gledhill's post yesterday, though written with tongue firmly in cheek, is nonetheless most amusing. It's nice to see Oxford Circus so prominently emblazoned with a Celtic Cross.

Of course, it's just a pedestrian crossing, but there's a cross there too, for those who choose the see it. That's the way of these things, as in the story from Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross that Pope John Paul I drew on in Illustrissimi, relating how the monk Michael addressed Professor Lucifer, who had shrieked on seeing the cross above St Paul's. Michael told Lucifer he had once known a man like him:
'As I was observing,' continued Michael, 'this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife's neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.'

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

'Is that story really true?' he asked.

'Oh, no,' said Michael, airily. 'It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world.'

Human Rites?
I couldn't help but think of this earlier, when I heard of today's decision from the European Court of Human Rights. The decision is deeply bizarre, and it's hardly surprising that people in Italy are reportedly up in arms about it.

It seems that Mrs Soile Lautsi, a Finnish lady who is also an Italian citizen, has been embroiled for eight years in a quarrel with the Italian authorities over the fact that her children had to attend school in a school where every classroom had a crucifix on its walls. Wanting her children to be educated in line with her beliefs, which would have required the crucifixes' removal, she approached the school and subsequently challenged the school's refusal in the Italian courts. Getting nowhere there, she eventually took the case to Strasbourg, where the seven judges who dealt with the case today ruled unanimously in her favour.

Drawing on article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and on article 2 of the Convention's first protocol, the Court found that 'The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities... restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions,' and likewise restricted the 'right of children to believe or not to believe'.

Mrs Lautsi was awarded €5000 as compensation for 'moral prejudice', but the Court refrained from directing the school to remove the crucifixes, and from advising the Italian State that the 1920s law, requiring the display of the crucifix, is incompatible with the Convention.

I have no idea whether she was awarded costs. It seems as though she wasn't.

The ECHR is NOT an instrument of the EU
There's a lot to chew on here, but it's worth starting by pointing out that the European Court of Human Rights, which implements and interprets the European Convention on Human Rights, is an instrument of the Council of Europe, and not the EU. It was established in 1950, so predates the EU by some time, and its remit governs 47 countries, whereas remit of the European Court of Justice, the EU's supreme court, extends only to the Union's 27 members. The UK's Human Rights Act, is based on the Convention, which makes it rather ironic that so many of the UK's 'Conservatives' want to repeal it, given the Convention's Conservative roots.

That the Convention has conservative roots seems far from insignificant in the current situation. I have difficulty believing that its signatories back in the day would have been keen to sign up to it -- or to decide that doing so should be a prerequisite for admission to the EU -- had they believed that their own laws, as they then stood, should be deemed in breach of the Convention.

The Basis for the Decision
It's worth taking a look at the Convention itself, to see the bits the Court has based its decision on. Article 9 has two parts and is as follows:
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
  2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Article 2 of the Convention's first protocol throws important light on Article 9:
No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions.
I think it's easy enough to see how the Court reached its decision. The Court clearly recognised that, given how the Italian state exercises certain functions regarding education and teaching, in that it has a national school system, the State should have respected the right of Mrs Lautsi to ensure that her children could be educated in line with her religious and philosophical convictions.

Well, yes.... but...
It seems to me that the first and most obvious problem with this is that Mrs Lautsi's children were hardly being taught in isolation. They were taught in classes, along with, say, twenty or more other children. Might it not have been the case that the parents of the other twenty or so children wanted their children educated in line with their convictions? Ought their convictions to have been dismissed in favour of Mrs Lautsi's?

It's probably worth bearing in mind that homeschooling is legal in Italy. Granted, it's very rare, but it is an option. That's not to say that Mrs Lautsi should have taken her children out of school, but she could have done so if she really wanted to. I know, that sounds drastic, but it happens in other countries when people aren't happy with the ethos in the local schooling system.

I also can't help but thinking St Ambrose of Milan's very old injunction that one should do as the Romans when one is in Rome. Mrs Lautsi is Finnish by birth and clearly at least partly by ancestry; she is hardly obliged to remain in Italy, and it seems a tad unreasonable that she should expect the Italian state to accommodate itself to her, rather than accommodating herself to it.

I'll have more on this issue, but not today.

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