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Sometimes a Cross Is Not a Cross

Crucifixes in Italian classrooms, like a cross in the Mojave Desert, attract legal trouble.

When a European court ruled last year that Italy should remove crucifixes from public classrooms, a wave of anti-EU protest spread from Italy to neighboring countries, where people worried — again — about an assault from EU eggheads on their national traditions.

The case belongs to Europe's ongoing struggle between a rising, quasi-federal government in Brussels and the national identities of EU member states. "The European court has trodden on our rights, our culture, our history, our traditions and our values," is how one Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, from the unsavory Northern League, put it last November.

The case is pretty simple. A mother, Soile Lautsi, objected eight years ago to the crucifixes hanging in schoolrooms where her two sons attended class. Lautsi is a Finn with dual citizenship, married to an Italian, living in northern Italy. The crucifixes, she said, were "contrary to the secular principles by which she wished to raise her children."

The European Court of Human Rights agreed last year. Italy has appealed, in part because it wants to limit the court's power. The ECHR interprets cases from across Europe according to the European Convention on Human Rights. Some people call it the "constitutional court of the EU," but that's misleading. The EU has no constitution. And the 47 governments who have signed on to the ECHR also belong to the Council of Europe, not the EU. (They include Russia.) Now 10 other governments, including Russia, have applied for third-party status to support Italy in its appeal on June 30.

Personally, I don't care if crucifixes hang in Italian classrooms, but the Lautsi case touches a simple and glaring weakness in Italian law. Rome still abides by 1920s-era agreements between the Fascist government and the Roman Catholic Church to hang religious symbols in classrooms, though the government formally disestablished Catholicism as the state religion in 1984. Italy is now a secular republic.

Whether or not the verdict stands, it's hard to see how the ECHR can hope to pass judgments on the separation of church and state that apply evenly across Europe. Every government has a different approach to religion, and eastern countries in particular — Catholic Poland, Orthodox Armenia — have no love for the modern secularism written into some western constitutions.

What the court should not do is cave to the tempting argument that religious symbols can also mean something else. It's one thing to say, reasonably, that crucifixes have hung in Italian classrooms for years without harming kids or converting hapless infidels. It's another to argue — as Italy has — that the symbol also belongs to the nation, because Italians have been Catholic for so long.

"To transform the cross, or any other religious symbol, into a symbol of national identity voids it of its spiritual significance and feeds currents of extreme nationalism," said Lisa Palmieri Billig, the American Jewish Committee's liaison with the Vatican, to the JTA news agency. The most harrowing example cited by JTA is a collection of crosses planted at Auschwitz in 1998 by Polish ultra-nationalists to "reclaim" the land.

But American legal minds also like to conflate symbols. The Italian dust-up echoes a recent U.S. Supreme Court case about a cross in the Mojave Desert. The cross has been stolen in the meantime, but for 10 years it was encased in an absurd plywood box while U.S. courts ruled back and forth on whether a religious symbol could stand on public property as a World War I memorial.

Veterans raised it on a remote Mojave rock in 1934, certainly without trying, on behalf of Washington, to convert the heathen. In April, the justices ruled that an imminent transfer of the cross' patch of land to private ownership would solve the church-and-state problem. But they avoided a deep consideration of whether an old cross could legally stand in a national preserve. During oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that it was not really a religious symbol.

"It's erected as a war memorial!" he said, flustered by ACLU lawyer Peter Eliasberg, who had just pointed out that the cross represented the resurrection of Jesus Christ. "I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of ... of ... of the resting place of the dead."

"The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians," Eliasberg said. "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew."

Justice Stevens observed: "Making a plain, unadorned Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial sectarian."

A religious symbol is a religious symbol. Maybe the best argument for leaving some of them in place — though it might stick in the craw of some partisans — is tolerance.