Abstract

This article compares the recent jurisprudence of the US Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights on the question of state-sponsored religious displays. Both tribunals insist that states have a duty of religious ‘neutrality’, but each defines that term differently. For the Supreme Court, neutrality means that government may not proselytize, even indirectly, or appear to favour a particular church; neutrality may even mean that government must not endorse religion generally. For the ECtHR, in contrast, neutrality means only that government must avoid active religious indoctrination; the ECtHR allows government to give ‘preponderant visibility’ to the symbols of traditionally dominant churches. The different conceptions of neutrality reflect institutional and cultural realities. In particular, the differences reflect what sociologists of religion describe as the ‘American’ and ‘European’ religious models.

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