April 2017 : Easter Blessings on the State School Grounds in Italy
It is legitimate to offer religious blessings at public schools. This is now established by the decision of the Italian Council of State (CoS), which has reversed the decision of the Administrative regional tribunal of Emilia-Romagna (TAR Emilia-Romagna). One year ago, this tribunal had suspended the decision of the 16 board members of Giosuè Carducci Elementary School of Bologna, who had agreed to let a Roman Catholic priest offer an Easter prayer at their public school.
From a general point of view, the CoS states that the blessing cannot in any way affect the progress of public teaching and school life. As far as the case of Carducci Elementary School is concerned, the religious rite is provided for activities other than official ones. For these reasons, the blessing cannot infringe, directly or indirectly, the religious freedom of those who, while belonging to the same school community, do not belong to Catholicism : if they fear to be harmed by these religious rites, they can choose not to attend them.
In addition, the CoS affirms that the blessing is not in contrast with the supreme principle of secularism (principi supremo di laicità). As the Italian constitutional court stated in a historical decision of 1989 (n° 203), this principle does not imply indifference towards religions, but equidistance and impartiality towards the different religious denominations. In other words, the supreme principle of laicità is based on the State’s positive attitude towards all religious communities. That is the point, have replied the members of the school community who disagree with the CoS’s decision : if we interpret the supreme principle of laicità the way the CoS did, then all religious rites should have the opportunity to be held on school ground. As matter of fact, the supreme principle of secularism also implies the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.
All this shows that the case over the blessing at the school is part of an enduring debate in Italy on where exactly the church-State boundary lies. The argument is that such rituals, which include the blessing, are part of the cultural legacy of Italy, a point contested by a group of parents and teachers who filed a legal action to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It should be noted that, in 2011 the Great Chamber of the ECHR overturned an earlier decision of the ECHR’s Second Section, and ruled that State schools in Italy could hang up crucifixes, concluding that they were “an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”
Thus, it does not matter what the ECHR will decide in the case of Giosuè Carducci Elementary School. In the light of the above considerations, we are sure that, once again, the decision will have an impact.
Reference : N. Colaianni, "Laicità : finitezza degli ordini e governo delle differenze", in Stato, Chiese e pluralismo confessionale, n° 39, 2013.
- January 2015 : The New Lombardy Legislation “against” Mosques
With the exception of the Centro Islamico Culturale d’Italia (Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy), no Islamic organization is formally recognised by the State in Italy. The official recognition of confessions other than Catholicism must in fact be approved by a Decree of the President of the Republic, upon request of the Italian Minister of Interior (see La Lega Musulmana Mondiale – Italia e il Centro Islamico Culturale d’Italia). Such recognition does not merely depend on the number of followers of a given religion, it also requires congruence between the principles of the proposing confession and the Italian Constitution (see Imams and other Religious Authorities in Italy).
Any community with religious aims can operate within the Italian legal system without authorization or prior registration. In this sense, the only limit is the protection of public order and common decency. When following these restrictions, Islamic denominations and their legal entities may choose among various types of legal capacity. They may, for example, constitute themselves as “non-recognized associations”, in accordance with Article 36-38 of the Italian Civil Code, a status which is also used by political parties and trade union organizations. This model of association is the simplest, and does not involve particular control from the State’s authorities. According to Articles 14-35 of the Civil Code, and the 2000 decree of the President of Italian Republic (no. 361), communities with religious aims can also choose the form of “recognized associations”, which provides legal personality through registration at the local Prefecture. The civil capacity of Islamic organizations may also be obtained via Article 16 of the “Provisions on law in general” (Disposizioni sulla legge in generale) that, based on the principle of reciprocity, would grant foreign Muslim groups the same rights guaranteed to Italian legal bodies. In other words, these groups can enjoy the legal benefits guaranteed to all private associations devoid of religious coloring.
In sum, the Islamic groups can enjoy the legal benefits guaranteed to all other private associations without religious connotations. The problem is that Islam is a religion. Furthermore, apart from Catholicism, Islam is the largest religious creed in Italy (see La presenza islamica in Italia : forme di organizzazione, profili problematici e rapporti con le Istituzioni), although it is practiced by a minority of people. According to recent estimates, about 2% of the population adhere to the Islamic creeds. Despite the fact that illegal immigrants represent only a minority of Muslims in Italy, the issue of Islam in contemporary Italy is constantly linked by some political parties (particularly the North League) with immigration, and more specifically illegal immigration (see Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini : "Milioni di islamici pronti a sgozzare". Volantini con vignette di Charlie Hebdo). Just as in other European Countries, there is not in Italy a single national Islamic organization. Many Islamic groups are local, while others refer to some transnational Islamist movements or to a foreign State. Immigrants make up the large number of Italian Muslim organizations that, when wishing to operate in Italy, must respect the principles of the Italian Constitution. These principles, though, must be taken into serious consideration in order to establish a proper connection between the State and the Islamic organizations, which would solve some questions such as issues concerning the places of worships, namely the mosques (see Edilizia ed edifici di culto).
In this sense, it is important to notice that the Italian government has moved to block new religious building for Lombardy, the most populous region in Italy, with Act no. 62/2015. The Government has said that this legislation would make it virtually impossible to build any new mosques in this region. In fact, this new legislation has become known as the “anti-mosque” Act. It has been approved by the right-wing dominated regional Council at the end of January 2015 (see Legge anti-moschee Lombardia, il governo la impugna. Maroni : “Ritorsione”). Amid an outcry over what critics see as a blatantly discriminatory move in Lombardy, which includes its capital Milan, the centre-left Government (guided by the leader of the Democrat Party, Matteo Renzi) has decided to refer the new regional rules to the Constitutional Court for review.
The aim of the new act is clearly to impose stricter and tougher provisions on minority religious groups, for which it becomes nearly impossible to comply with the law. They would then be unable to erect any new religious buildings within the territory of Lombardy. Critics say that the Lombardy Act breaches the 1948 Constitution on several grounds, and that the new rules are bound to be overturned by the Constitutional Court.
Judges of the Consulta are in effect expected to consider whether the new measures breach guarantees of religious freedom (Articles 19 of the Italian Constitution), whether the region has exceeded its power by redrawing the relationship between State and Religion (Article 117 of the Italian Constitution), and whether the new Act leaves too much to the discretion of local mayors. The new law and its provisions introduce a series of new criteria, particularly in the field of urban and town-planning. Such new criteria are added to the previously enforced ones, namely concerning representativeness of the groups as well as other administrative aspects. More generally, are three main critic points in the new regional act : the groups to which they apply ; the powers of local authorities during the negotiations ; the additional requirements the communities have to meet in order to get a building license.
For example, one provision of the Lombardy act states that local mayors who are unhappy about the construction of a new mosque may seek to organise a local referendum before granting or refusing permission. This act also stipulates that the dimensions and architectural proportions of any new place of worship should be in keeping with Lombardy’s landscape ; this condition clearly appears custom-written to block any plans involving minarets, the tall slender tower that is most often part of a mosque. Under the Lombardi new act, anyone seeking to build a new place of worship for a religion not officially recognised by the State would be subject to an extensive list of special restrictions, ranging from the size of associated parking facilities, to the outward appearance of the buildings. Since Islam is the only major religion not recognised by the Italian Republic, the new rules are seen as being specifically targeted at Italy’s more than one million Muslims.
The Matteo Renzi Government’s decision to block Lombardy’s legislation plan prompted a scathing response from Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Northern league : he has said that Renzi and the Interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, are the new imams. It should be noted that The Northern league is the dominant force in the coalition running the Lombardy Region.
- April 2012 : Sessa v. Italy at the ECHR
A Jewish lawyer requested that an audience not be held the day of Yom Kippur. He was told in response that he could send a substitute and that, in any event in view of the nature of the hearing, his presence was not mandatory. The Italian judges dismissed the lawyer’s appeal and the Strasbourg Court endorsed Italy’s position. However, three judges out of seven gave dissenting views, expressing their opinion that a reasonable work-around was possible and that consequently the Italian authorities had indeed infringed the lawyer’s religious freedom.
See the full article by Marco Ventura on the site of the Corriere (in italian).
- 2004 : Islam, Minority Religious Communities and Legal Protection of the Status of Religions
The spreading of new religious movements and the Islam challenge highlight the limits of the Italian system of law on religions, which is founded on the difference of legal status between groups which signed an agreement with the government (thus enjoying a special status) and the others. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhists signed an agreement in 2000 (with a centre left government), but the Parliament (now made up of a centre right majority) refused to recognise this agreement and make it into a law. The result of this is that the status of these groups has not changed since then. There are huge problems concerning Islamic communities due to the current international situation. Muslims have been expelled for reasons that have more to do with politics than with the law, as no legal assessment was involved. Several sides, especially many Catholic bishops, have suggested that the law on immigration limit the access of Muslim immigrants who might not be able to integrate into a Catholic country.
In 2002 the Berlusconi government presented a bill on religious freedom (which resumes the projects of the Amato and Prodi governments) to reform the common law system that regulates the status of religious minorities.
See the Berlusconi government’s "on religious freedom" on reforming common law applicable to religious groups in Italy, presented on 18 March 2002.