On June 22, 2012, the Center for Law and Religion proudly hosted, together with the Department of Law at Libera Universita Maria SS. Assunta (LUMSA), an international conference, State-Sponsored Religious Displays in the U.S. and Europe. Held at LUMSA's campus in Rome, Italy, the conference brought together leading American and European scholars, judges, and government officials to address the legality of public religious displays in different nations. Professor Silvio Ferrari of the University of Milan delivered the Conference Introduction. Panels included Cultural or Religious? Understanding Symbols in Public Places; The Lautsi Case and the Margin of Appreciation; and State-Sponsored Religious Displays in Comparative Perspective.
Questions about the public display of religious symbols are very much in the air. In both the United States and Europe, recent cases have addressed the permissibility of such displays. In the United States, a fractured Supreme Court in 2010 allowed display of a Latin cross as a war memorial in the Mojave Desert. The Court decided the case, Salazar v. Buono, on a procedural point, but observers generally understood that the real issue in the case was the constitutionality of the cross itself. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the European Court of Human Rights in 2011 decided Lautsi v. Italy, a challenge to Italy's practice of placing crucifixes in public school classrooms. In a decision that surprised many observers, the Grand Chamber held that display of the crucifix was consistent with Italy's duty of religious neutrality under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Salazar and Lautsi are two prominent examples of litigation involving public religious displays, but similar cases recur all the time. Public religious displays cause neuralgic controversies in America and Europe, and, indeed, around the world. As Ferrari writes in his contribution to this symposium, "conflicts around religious symbols have acquired a global dimension and occur with equal intensity in countries with profoundly different cultural backgrounds, religious traditions, and political institutions." Millions of people see such displays as vital to a sense of national identity-or, at worst, innocuous. For millions of other people, however, state-sponsored religious symbols send a message of exclusion and intolerance. The debate seems unlikely to end anytime soon.
From among the many fine papers presented at the Conference, the editors of the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies have selected four for publication: Silvio Ferrari's “Conference Introduction, State-Supported Display of Religious Symbols in the Public Space;” Thomas Berg’s “Can State-Sponsored Religious Symbols Promote Religious Liberty?;” Monica Lugato’s “The ‘Margin of Appreciation’ and Freedom of Religion: Between Treaty Interpretation and Subsidiarity;” and Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain’s “Religious Symbols and the Law.”