I just returned from a two week research trip in Germany. While I was there the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France ruled that crucifixes are OK in Italian public school classrooms. An atheist had brought the lawsuit, challenging the display of the Catholic symbol in secular public schools. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the Vatican argued that crucifixes are “an expression of the cultural and religious identity of traditionally Christian countries,” not a form of indoctrination.
As uncomfortable as I may be taking the same side as atheists, I disagree with the court ruling. What the majority sees as an expression of cultural or religious identity, the minority have to endure as a visible reminder of cultural and religious domination. While I don’t believe that public spaces must be religion-free zones, secular governments should not be allowed to favor one religion over others.
Imagine what might happen in our country if those in the majority were allowed to write the rules for everyone. Public schools in Utah would ban caffeinated beverages. In Dearborn, MI schools might provide kufis and prayer rugs to those who want to pray toward Mecca. In predominately Baptist towns might prohibit dancing at school sponsored events. Brooklyn schools could say no to pork and shellfish.
A supporter of the court’s ruling might point out that unlike some of my examples above the Italian schools aren’t forcing or forbidding anything; they’re merely displaying a symbol. But symbols communicate power, whether it’s a crucifix or a confederate flag, and they’re constant reminders of who’s in control.
Religious freedom doesn’t mean freedom from religion, but it also doesn’t mean favoring one religion over others.