A quick followup on Claudia’s very interesting post on state religious neutrality. As Claudia suggests, pretty much every Western democracy nowadays accepts the notion that the state must be “neutral” with respect to religion. But, as Claudia points out, the fact that everyone uses the same word obscures underlying disagreements. In the US, for example, neutrality means that the state may not display sectarian symbols, at least in a manner that seems to endorse the sectarian message. Not so in Europe. There, the ECtHR has made plain, a state may display sectarian symbols as long as the state does not engage in active proselytizing. Thus, according to the recent Lautsi decision, European states may display crucifixes in public school classrooms, conduct that would be unthinkable in the US under current Supreme Court jurisprudence.
In trying to understand the different meanings the same word has in different systems, it’s useful to consider what Tocqueville referred to as a nation’s “point of departure.” Every legal system is embedded in a particular culture with a particular history. In Europe, where links between church and state are traditionally very strong, certain state actions, like placing sectarian symbols in the public space, are simply part of the background, something most people take for granted. In the US, however, a society with a much stronger separationist tradition, such actions are not seen as neutral and innocuous. I explain this all in more depth in a recent article on the Italian crucifix case, “Crosses and Culture: State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the US and Europe,” in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion. Interested readers can find the article on the journal’s website, here.