In Spain, some push to rid classrooms of religious symbols

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.”

In September 2009, the Center for Sociological Studies revealed almost 75 percent of Spaniards define themselves as Catholic, though only 15 percent go to Mass every Sunday, and 55 percent “almost never.” Twenty percent declare they are atheists or non-believers.


Appeasing the Catholic tradition in officially secular Spain is proving a difficult task, and practicing Catholics aren't taking the prospect of the ban lightly.


The digital version of Alba, a Catholic publication, described the possible removal of religious symbols from schools as part of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government’s “crusade against Catholicism.”


Luis Carbonel, president of the Catholic Confederation of Students’ Parents, concurs: “This government is attacking everything Catholic — first with gay marriage, then fast-track divorce, now [expanding legal] abortion and eliminating religious symbols in schools. The government is making a mistake. The cross is not only a religious symbol, it’s also a cultural one. If we remove these symbols, we lose our character, our traditions, and, therefore, what we are.”


“Non-believers cannot impose their non-believing,” Carbonel added.


Groups that support a society free of religious symbols in public space argue that it's religious Catholics who are trying to impose their beliefs, citing the teaching of religion in schools, which is an elective, non-credit class financed with taxpayer money. “We are willing to accept religion as an extracurricular activity, paid by parents, as it happens with guitar lessons, soccer or pottery,” said Parrado.


But Pedro Rascon, president of the National Confederation of Associations of Students' Parents, thinks religion has no place in school at all: “Religion belongs to the private scope, it should be at home, the synagogue, the mosque," he said.


Parrado, Lay School Cultural Association president, makes a distinction between the case of students wearing a medal of the Virgin Mary or a David star around their necks and a religious image hanging on the wall. “I can wear a cross and that’s a private matter, I’m not imposing this symbol on anybody, it only represents me, what I believe. A different case is a cross on the wall in a public school,” he said.


“The cross on the wall must be present if parents request it so,” argued Carbonel.


But at Macias Picavea School, parents’ differing views ended up in court, and the court overturned the school council’s decision.


“If the matter were marked by law, future conflicts would be avoided,” said Rascon. 


Early this month, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in favor of a woman in Italy who had requested religious symbols be removed from the school attended by her two children. Following that decision, the Lay School Cultural Association asked the regional government to withdraw the appeal. The regional government, however, refuses. Parrado said they will take the case to Strasbourg if necessary.


“Colegios concertados” are particular to Spain, where they are private schools that receive public funds. Eighty percent of them are Catholic, owned by the Church or religious orders, and it is unclear how they would be affected.


Parrado explained another school in Valladolid is also undergoing judicial proceedings. The name of the center is Isabel la Catolica — after the Catholic monarch under whom the Jews were expelled from Spain, the Reconquista from the Moors was finished and evangelization in the Americas began. She must be turning in her grave.