Federal judges have sided with the Bavarian government in its litigation against an atheist group
The authorities in Bavaria have the right to demand that Christian crosses be placed in all government buildings, the German Federal Administrative Court – one of the nation’s five federal supreme courts – ruled on Tuesday. The decision followed a row between regional officials and an association of atheists.
Led by Markus Soeder – the head of the region’s most powerful political force, the Conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) – the Bavarian government introduced the rule in 2018. At that time, the authorities ordered Christian crosses to be placed over the entrances of all government buildings to reflect the state’s “cultural identity as well as Christian [and] Western influence.”
The southern German state had previously enacted similar rules for public schools and courtrooms, making cross displays compulsory. Soeder also took a particularly tough stance on migration and sought to streamline asylum procedures in the state.
The 2018 decision was met with criticism by atheist associations and religious leaders alike. The Catholic Church accused Soeder of misusing Christian symbols to score cheap political points. An atheist association known as the ‘Union for Mental Freedom’ claimed that the decision violated its right to freedom of thought, and took the matter to court in 2021.
The union had its first legal complaint dismissed by a lower court, prompting it to turn to the Federal Administrative Court. “What does a cross have to do with an official activity, with the issuing of a driving license? Nothing!” a lawyer for the organization argued during the trial.
Federal judges, however, considered the Bavarian authorities’ decision to be a “mere administrative provision with no legal external effect,” which did not “violate any rights of the plaintiffs.” The court acknowledged that the cross is perceived as the central symbol of the Christian faith, but said its display does not infringe upon any guarantees of freedom.
Soeder welcomed the decision by saying the cross is “a sign of our Christian and cultural nature,” adding that it “belongs to Bavaria.” The leader of the CSU faction in the regional parliament, Klaus Holetschek, also praised the development by saying “’yes’ to our values and ‘yes’ to the Christian-Western nature of our country.” The Union for Mental Freedom has vowed to challenge the ruling at the German Constitutional Court.
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