Blogging the Rome Conference: State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe

Last week, CLR hosted a conference in Rome on state-sponsored religious displays, along with our colleagues at the Department of Law at LUMSA. The conference, held at LUMSA’s main campus in the Borgo, drew about 100 people and included panels on the cultural and religious meanings of symbols, the Lautsi case and the margin of appreciation, and a comparison of American and European jurisprudence. I moderated one panel and spoke on another, so I couldn’t take notes on everything. Here are some notes on a few of the day’s very fine presentations, though. Selected papers will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

Silvio Ferrari (University of Milan) opened the conference by offering a framework for understanding state-sponsored religious displays. After describing the three models European nations have adopted with respect to such displays, Ferrari noted the central problem: “religious” symbols often have a variety of meanings, both religious and cultural, that one cannot easily disentangle. He suggested relying on Jurgen Habermas’s distinction between an “informal” public space, like a town square, and an “institutional” public space, like a courtroom. In the former, Ferrari argued, religious symbols might be permissible; in the latter, they should be prohibited. He concluded by stressing the benefits of the debate on state-sponsored religious symbols. The debate itself is important, he argued, because it forces people to take religious symbols seriously as a public question.

In the day’s second panel, Monica Lugato (LUMSA) gave a paper on the conceptual roots of the margin of appreciation doctrine, which played a central role in the Grand Chamber’s judgment in Lautsi. She explained how the doctrine, which grants national governments discretion in applying the rights guaranteed by the European Convention, follows from basic rules of treaty interpretation and coheres with the principle of subsidiarity. My CLR colleague Marc DeGirolami followed with a paper on the shift from an abstract, single-value jurisprudence to one that considers the many possible meanings of religious symbols. For example, he argued, the Latin cross has many possible references; he praised the new recognition of the multiple meanings of religious symbols in American and European jurisprudence. Cole Durham (BYU) ended the panel with a call for an authentic “pluralistic secularity,” a midway point between “confessionalism” and “fundamentalist secularism,” that would allow national majorities to celebrate their culture but not impose religion on minorities. Durham argued that the Grand Chamber’s judgment in Lautsi struck an appropriate balance in this regard.

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