The European Commission yesterday steered away from the controversy over the Italian crucifix issue, saying it had no competence to give its opinion or challenge a decision of a court outside its jurisdiction.
The Commission's position was made clear by Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot in reaction to a resolution in the European Parliament calling on the EU to challenge the recent judgment handed down by the Council of Europe's Court of Human Rights.
The court has ruled that the presence of a crucifix in an Italian classroom restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions.
"I don't see how this debate can really take place in the European Parliament," said Mr Barrot, adding that the EU had absolutely nothing to do with this judgment.
"The European Commission cannot act outside its legal framework. The issue concerns Italy and has no link with the EU. We cannot give any kind of opinion on a decision taken by a court which does not form part of our institutions."
He affirmed the Commission's intention to protect the principle of subsidiarity among member states.
However, he urged that any court ruling should be respected by all the parties members of the Convention on Fundamental Human Rights and highlighted the fact that Italy had already said it would appeal from the judgment. He added that the issue was very controversial and divisive and appealed for prudence by member states and MEPs.
The resolution was presented by Italian MEP Mario Borghezio on behalf of the European of Freedom and Democracy Group.
It is still unclear which way today's vote on the resolution will go as MEPs seem to be very divided on the issue, with conflicting opinions even inside the same political groups.
Various other political groups in the EP, including the European People's Party (EPP) and the Socialists, have presented their own resolutions which, although couched in milder language, defend the principle that decisions connected to religious freedom should be the sole competence of member states.
On the other hand, the Green, Liberal and Leftist groups counteracted with resolutions defending the Strasbourg court's judgement and calling on Italy to adhere to the ruling and remove crucifixes from public schools.
The EPP resolution, representing the largest group in the EU assembly, was co-authored and signed by Maltese MEP Simon Busuttil who also conducted his group's discussion over the issue.
The resolution affirms that freedom of religion, like any other civil or social freedom, is a fundamental value that forms part of the basis of every modern and democratic society and cannot be censured. The EU and international institutions cannot protect rights by denying the values that have created them.
At the same time the resolution calls for recognition of the principle of subsidiarity "by all European institutions and international organisations, including the freedom of member states to exhibit religious symbols in public places when these symbols represent the tradition and the identity of their people, as well as a unifying aspect of a national community".
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