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FIRST-PERSON: Will European schools have more religious freedom than America’s?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP)–Perspective is an interesting thing. For many on the left, Europe is the continent of ultimate sophistication, where they’ve outgrown such social drudgeries as Christianity, faith and religious freedom. For many on the right, Europe is a hotbed of cultural atheism, and all too indulgent of the sophistries of socialism and secularism.

Mere weeks ago, a critical decision from the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights gave pause to both those perceptions.

In a remarkable and near-unanimous judgment, the ECHR (the “supreme court” of the Council of Europe) overturned an earlier ruling that would have banished crosses from every public classroom in Italy … and encouraged the erosion of religious liberty all over Europe.

The Alliance Defense Fund and allied lawyers represented 33 members (from 11 nations) of the European Parliament in an appeal of the earlier ruling, issued by a lower chamber of the ECHR.

The case originated when a Mrs. Soile Tuulikki Lautsi of Abano Terme (in the Padua province of northeastern Italy) objected to crosses on the walls of her children’s classrooms. She demanded that the symbols be removed. When both the local school council and the regional administrative tribunal denied her request, she appealed to the ECHR, which not only ruled unanimously in her favor, but banned all crosses from all public classrooms throughout Italy.

Italy appealed that decision to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR — a kind of “super” Supreme Court — and once the appeal was granted, members of the European Parliament from nearly a dozen nations joined that appeal, asking ADF attorneys to represent their interests. The ADF clients were granted permission to intervene, and ADF argued that the lower court’s decision exceeded its legal authority and violated the sovereignty of Italy. The Grand Chamber agreed.

The decision marked a major victory for the rights of Council of Europe member nations to preserve their own traditions and beliefs. It also came as something of a surprise — not only for groups like the European Humanist Federation — but for U.S. jurists looking for legal precedents they can apply to religious freedom issues in American courtrooms.

A number of appellate court judges — including five U.S. Supreme Court justices — have indicated their enthusiasm for citing foreign law in constitutional cases, and the high court has already invoked European precedents in several instances. Ironically, with this ruling, the Council of Europe now allows Europeans more legal leeway for acknowledging their national history and religious heritage — even if it is Christian — than many U.S. courts grant Americans.

And make no mistake: “acknowledge” is the crucial word. Whether it’s a crucifix on a classroom wall in primarily Catholic Italy or the Ten Commandments on the wall of a U.S. courthouse, a Bible in a student’s hands at recess or a prayer before graduation, a Christmas greeting from a department store employee or a Christian poster in an office cubicle, the pressure is on worldwide to drive any semblance of the Judeo-Christian God from every corner of the public square.

Never mind that no one is compelling anyone in these settings to embrace religious faith. These are acknowledgements of some citizens’ — even a majority of citizens’ — faith in God … not government directives to “convert or die.” Nothing remotely resembling a new Crusade is underway.

Indeed, crosses and prayers should be no more intrusive or unsettling in a free culture than bumper stickers and honking horns are in morning traffic. Each marks the free expression of one person’s convictions. And like all free expressions, religious ones are sometimes loud and sometimes quiet … sometimes a little overbearing and sometimes a gentle encouragement … sometimes irritating, even to Christians, and sometimes delightful, even to the unbelieving. But always — always — free.

To eliminate that free expression of faith because some will always find faith “offensive” is more than a travesty against our nation’s history or a rejection of the politically expressed will of the majority of our fellow Americans. It is the first giant step toward the elimination of free speech of any kind. If today you can remove my cross because it offends you, tomorrow I may be able to remove your “Go Yankees” pennant because that bugs me. How long before steakhouses have to take down their signs because vegans are offended, or before Republicans can strip Democrat stickers off car bumpers while Democrats ban Republican commercials from the airwaves?

Discomfort breeds indignity. Indignity breeds intolerance. Intolerance breeds persecution. Where does it stop?

In Europe, last month, it stopped for a moment in the town of Abano Terme — or, if you like, in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. Justice ruled, and sanity reigned.

In America, though, the fight goes on and on as — in the name of defending freedom — a growing axis of anti-Christian legal groups work with deliberate diligence to eliminate freedom forever.

Perspective is such an interesting thing — and the thing most dangerously missing from our discussions of religious freedom in America.
Alan Sears is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund, online at AllianceDefenseFund.org. Sears is a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan Administration. ADF is a legal organization working to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.

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  • Alan Sears