Connect to share and comment

In Spain, some push to rid classrooms of religious symbols

Proposed ban stirs debate over religion in traditionally Catholic, but technically secular, Spain.

Cardinals attend a Catholic rally of hundreds of thousands Spaniards in central Madrid, Dec. 30, 2007. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

MADRID, Spain — A crucifix over the blackboard. An image of the Virgin Mary presiding over a classroom full of students. These pervasive Catholic symbols, still present in some Spanish public schools, may soon become things of the past.


The Ministry of Justice, in charge of religious affairs, has been considering a ban on religious symbols in the classroom — something Francisco Caamano, minister of justice, first mentioned to the media in August. Debate subsequently ensued over the role of religion in traditionally Catholic, but technically secular, Spain, and then intensified in September with the start of the schoolyear and again this month when the European Court of Human Rights ruled on a similar case in Italy.


The issue originally surfaced in 2008 with a controversial court decision, which stated that Macias Picavea, a public school in Valladolid, was to remove all crucifixes from classrooms and common spaces. The school’s council, composed of teachers and parents, had voted to maintain the religious symbols which dated back to the establishment’s 1930 inauguration. But a group of parents felt the symbols violated fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience. They took the case to court and won.


“It’s a matter of democratic health,” argued Carlos Parrado, president of the Lay School Cultural Association in Valladolid. "Public schools are a space for everyone, people of different faiths or no faith. A symbol that doesn’t represent everyone has no place. Why that particular symbol and not another?”


The court's ruling — which the regional government has appealed and is now pending the regional High Court’s final decision — declares that religious symbols in public schools violate the Spanish Constitution. The decision reiterates that there is no state religion and “the State can neither adhere to nor support any creed.”


The court decision also asserts that education is “particularly sensitive” to the issue of religious freedom, because what minors learn “decisively influences their future behavior about beliefs and inclinations.” Religious symbols in the public school may induce minors to feel “the State is closer to the faith those religious symbols represent” than to other religions, the court document says. 


The Spanish Constitution, dating from 1978, guarantees freedom of religion and specifies that “no religion shall have a state character.” Though Catholicism does get a special mention: “Public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and shall consequently maintain relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other faiths.”