By Hilary White

ROME, July 23, 2010 ( – To date, 20 European countries have declared their support for Italy’s religious freedom in the case of Lautsi v. Italy, known around the world as “the Crucifix case.” This number, made up mostly of Eastern European and former Soviet bloc countries, comprises nearly half of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.

The case, in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Italy must remove all crucifixes from public schools and offices, has resulted in widespread protests in Italy and around Europe.

The governments of Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, the Russia Federation, and San Marino, have submitted formal briefs to the court. The governments of Albania, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine have openly criticized the initial judgment.

Support for Italy’s Catholic heritage has also come from non-Catholics. Patriarch Cyril of Moscow and all Russia has spoken of the case as “unifying the Christian Churches” against the advance of secularism, while the Metropolitan (Bishop) Hilarion Alfeyev has proposed a Constitution “of a strategic alliance between Catholic and Orthodox,” aimed at defending the Christian tradition “against the secularism, liberalism, and relativism that is prevalent in modern Europe.”

The case was brought by Soile Lautsi, a naturalized Italian citizen of Finnish origin, who objected to the presence of crucifixes in her children’s classrooms. She complained, and the court agreed in November last year that the presence of a crucifix where her children could see them was a violation of their religious freedom. She was awarded €5000 (about US $7200) compensation.

The ruling said, “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.”

The Italian government is appealing the ruling, arguing that it violates the provisions in the Italian constitution that specify the special status of Catholicism in the country. The ECHR heard oral arguments in the appeal on June 30, 2010 and a judgment is expected in November.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), a Strasbourg-based NGO that campaigns for freedom of religion and expression, has been granted intervener status by the Court. In a media release, the group said that the case is symbolic of a greater struggle that is ongoing in Europe over the region’s cultural and spiritual identity; on the one side are proponents of the total secularization of Europe, and on the other are those who “desire an open Europe, one that is faithful to its identity and historical roots.”

“Confronted with this attempt at a complete de-Christianization of Europe, 20 European countries joined in an unprecedented approach to reaffirm the legitimacy of Christianity in Europe,” said the ECLJ.

Before the Lautsi ruling, the ECHR considered matters like the public display of religious symbols in public classrooms to fall under the sovereignty of the member States. Under its own rules, the court is required to respect the culture and traditions of each particular member state, intervening only in cases of what it considered indoctrination or abusive proselytism.

But the Lautsi ruling, the ECLJ maintains, marks a paradigm shift in which the ECHR has declared that the Convention on Human Rights requires European member states to be “areligious.” In other words, ECLJ director Gregor Puppinck, said, “in order for a state to be democratic, it must renounce its religious identity: this is pure secularization.”

The message sent by nearly half the member states of the Council of Europe to the Court and the forces of secularization is clearly one affirming the “social legitimacy of Christianity in European society.”

“Behind the legal arguments made in the defence of identities, cultures, and Christian national traditions, these 20 countries have publicly affirmed and defended their faithfulness to Christ himself, reminding Europe that the presence of Christ in society is of great benefit to all,” the ECLJ release said.

Read related LSN coverage:

Italian High Court Defends Crucifixes, National Sovereignty against European Human Rights Court

Ten States and 12 NGOs Sign on to Support Italy in Crucifix Case