Emory Law Journal


Aubrie Kent


Both France and Italy regulate the presence of religious symbols in public classrooms with the aim of transmitting national values and culture to students and promoting state unity. As more students of non-Christian backgrounds immigrate to France and Italy from outside Europe, the debate around religion in public schools has intensified, especially concerning Muslim students. France enforces a strictly neutral secular space by requiring the removal of any religious symbols, including head coverings like hijabs and yarmulkas. Italy mandated the display of the crucifix in every public school classroom until 2021, when the option was introduced to remove it. A comparison of these two radically different approaches to the presence of religion in schools reveals flaws in the assumption that a strictly neutral space is more beneficial to all students, particularly those from minority religious and cultural backgrounds.

As a product of their long and complex relationships with the Catholic Church, France and Italy have developed differing models of secularism that have shaped their legal frameworks for the regulation of religion in public life. French secularism, known as laicite, is built on the rejection of religion and demands the removal of religion to protect state unity. The Italian model of secularism, known as laicita, developed out of an accommodating relationship with the Church and reliance by the state on the unifying power of religion, and as a result is inclusive of religion. This Comment examines the way these opposing conceptions of secularism shape the legal approach to religious symbols in public education through two European Court of Human Rights cases, Dogru v. France and Lautsi v. Italy.

The centrality of the rejection of religion to French secularism results in a legal framework that treats all religious symbols as inherently threatening. The application of this framework demands that students of minority religions either remove important outward displays of religious and cultural identity or leave school. Comparison of France and Italy’s legal frameworks demonstrates that Italy’s flexible approach to religious symbols is more conducive to the transmission of national culture and values to students, and that the serious failings of France’s rigid legal approach could be cured by an adoption of some of these flexible elements.