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Mark Movsesian has a long piece in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion analyzing the conditions under which religious symbols can be displayed in public settings. Recognizing that this is, in the words of NYU law professor Joseph Weiler, a “debate that won’t go away” in either Europe or the United States, Movsesian argues that rival conceptions of what constitutes “neutrality” form the real hinge of the debate. These definitions are are primarily backed up by cultural traditions:

The different conceptions of neutrality reflect institutional and cultural realities. Institutionally, the Supreme Court’s status as a constitutional court allows it to adopt a stricter version of neutrality than the [European Court of Human Rights], which must accommodate a variety of national church-state arrangements, including establishments. Culturally, the Supreme Court’s conception of neutrality reflects what sociologists of religion refer to as the American model, which sees churches as voluntary associations that must compete in a free religious market.

The American model rejects government expressions of support for particular churches as inappropriate market distortions. In contrast, the ECtHR’s thinner conception of neutrality comports with what sociologists refer to as the European model. National religious cultures in Europe vary, of course, but important similarities exist that allow one to speak in terms of a common model, including the tendency to see churches, not as ‘competing firms’, but as ‘public utilities’ that provide a kind of religious infrastructure for the nation as a whole. Although the European model rejects outright state indoctrination, it accepts what the American model would forbid as impermissible symbolic endorsements of the dominant local church.

Read his full article here .

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