acculturation, Buono, cross, crucifix, culture, Establishment Clause, European Court of Human Rights, inculturation, interpretation, Italy, laicita', Lautsi, semiotics, meaning, religious neutrality, religious symbols, Salazar, secularism

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In the United States and Europe the constitutionality of government displays of confessional symbols depends on whether the symbols also have nonconfessional secular meaning (in the U.S.) or whether the confessional meaning is at least absent (in Europe). Yet both the United States Supreme Court (USSCt) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) lack a workable approach to determining whether secular meaning is present or confessional meaning absent.

The problem is that the government can nearly always articulate a possible secular meaning for the confessional symbols that it uses, or argue that the confessional meaning is passive and ineffective. What matters, however, is not the possibility that secular meaning is present or confessional meaning absent, but whether this presence or absence is historically and culturally authentic. Courts largely ignore this, routinely appealing to history and culture to justify government use of confessional symbols without undertaking a serious investigation of either history or culture.

Drawing on the work of C.S. Peirce, we propose that courts ask three successive questions in religious symbol cases:

(1) Is the ordinary meaning of the symbol confessional or otherwise religious?
(2) Does the immediate context in which the symbol is displayed suggest a possible historical, cultural, or other secular meaning?
(3) Is this alternate secular meaning authentically present and genuinely recognized in the history and culture of the place where the symbol is displayed?

We illustrate this approach with Salazar v. Buono, in which the USSCt upheld government display of a Christian cross, and Lautsi & Others v. Italy, in which the ECtHR deferred to Italian court decisions upholding government display of a Catholic crucifix. While the USSCt in Buono and the Italian courts in Lautsi imagine conceivable nonconfessional meanings for the confessional symbol at issue, neither meaning can be found in American or Italian history or culture. In Lautsi, therefore, the ECtHR ends up deferring to an Italian “tradition” that doesn’t exist.

Judicial denial of obvious confessional meaning and invention of substitute secular meanings for confessional symbols betrays a cultural schizophrenia: Majoritarian religions rail against the secularization of culture and its subversion of belief, yet they insist that their confessional symbols remain at home in this culture. But confessional symbols no longer fit in mainstream culture as confessional — hence the characterization of their meanings as secular or passive, even and especially by the majoritarian religions that use them. Ironically, judicial secularization or minimization of the meaning of these symbols to validate their use by government is likely to accelerate and entrench the very secularization that such religions deplore.


13 First Amendment L. Rev. 71

Publication Title

First Amendment Law Review