‘Impartiality’ is not ‘neutrality’: A polemic against the liberal view in Poland on removing crosses from public spaces

The decision of Warsaw's liberal mayor to ban crosses in public buildings is a violation of the Polish constitution

By Remix News Staff
12 Min Read

Authored by Tomasz Rowiński via Ordo Iuris:

A considerable portion of the public who can be generally described as liberal accepts the decision by Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski to remove religious symbols from Warsaw offices as uncontroversial. Numerous commentaries on the subject assert that since, after all, we live in a secular and ideologically neutral state, the matter is obvious: Everyone enjoys the right to his or her own convictions. Except that this particular conviction is not only based, as Elon Musk noted on May 12, on “shamelessly copying stupid things from America,” but is at odds with the existing legal order in Poland.

It is possible that the opinion outlined above is largely the result of a false understanding of the constitutional order that is in force in the Polish Republic. This can be seen, for example, in the ease with which the quotation from the Communist Law on Guarantees of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, which was published on social media by President Trzaskowski after his ordinance was criticized, was swallowed. It is likely that the mayor of Warsaw was counting on the ignorance of his audience, and at the same time, wanted to strengthen the authority of his own anti-religious stance. It is possible that many less knowledgeable readers interpreted the quote as a passage from the current Constitution, which it actually contradicts.

The aforementioned law states that “the Republic of Poland is a secular state, neutral in matters of religion and belief.” Meanwhile, in the Constitution, which from the outset refers positively to the Christian heritage as a reference point for values, we read that “public authorities in the Republic of Poland shall be impartial in matters of personal convictions, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to worldviews, and shall ensure the freedom to express them in public life.” The difference in the words used is relevant here, “impartiality” being something different from “neutrality” and “secularism.”

A journalistic example of the above-mentioned confusion that has been introduced by this secularist opinion can be found in Tomasz Sawczuk’s article from Kultura Liberalna (“Liberal Culture”) entitled “Is Trzaskowski Introducing a Secular State?” 

“Rafał Trzaskowski’s decision to remove religious symbols from public offices in Warsaw is completely uncontroversial,” writes Tomasz Sawczuk. “It is a simple separation of Church and state, which is not hostile to religion.”

Nevertheless, Sawczuk fails to explain what, in his view, is the “mere separation of Church and state.” In fact, since 1989, our state has developed its own manner of determining the relationship between the Church, the state, and religion, which this columnist of Kultura Liberalna appears to have overlooked. Both the Polish Constitution and the Constitutional Tribunal’s relevant rulings, not to mention the courts, have defined what the separation of Church and state and vice versa consists of in the Republic of Poland. Moreover, it follows from the Polish Constitution that one cannot simply, as Sawczuk does, equate the religious expression of citizens with the social role and place of the Church and other religious associations in the life of the state.

The Polish Constitution, in point 2 of its Article 25, which has already been cited, speaks of the principle of “impartiality” with regard to religion, not the Church. On the other hand, in point 3 of Article 25, which defines the relationship between the state and the Church, we read about “cooperation for the individual and the common good.” The word “impartiality” was not used in the Constitution by accident, but intentionally – precisely in order to distinguish the attitude of the Polish state towards religion from the atheistic perspectives associated with the slogans of neutrality and secularism.

The claim that the presence of a cross in a public office, which is the symbol of more than a billion Christians of multiple denominations, constitutes an attempt by the ecclesiastical authority to interfere with secular prerogatives is untenable. A cross hung on the wall of an office by citizens is first and foremost an expression of legally protected religious freedom, including in the public sphere. The presence of the cross in offices is also part of the constitutional expression of gratitude “for the culture of the Nation, which is rooted in its Christian heritage as well as in universal human values” (Constitution of the Republic of Poland, Preamble).

In 2010, the Court of Appeal in Szczecin recognized the constitutional concept of “impartiality” as a “benevolent interest” and a “sympathetic approach” to religiosity. It follows that it is the duty of the public authorities to assume the role of guarantor of the freedom of religious expression in public spaces, and that those who are averse to the presence of a cross in a public building have no right to demand that their subordinates refrain from using this symbol. They do not have the right to arbitrarily restrict religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

When Tomasz Sawczuk writes that “for some people (…) the decision (by Rafał Trzaskowski) was unpleasant and incomprehensible, because they support the presence of religion in public administration,” but that these same people are unable to “provide a sensible justification of a legal nature in this case, but one merely stemming from their personal beliefs,” he reverses the rationality that underlies the Polish legal order. Religious expression in a public place does not require additional justification, but is a civic right. It is the opponents of the cross and other religious symbols who are unable – without disregarding the existing legal order –  to adequately justify why the administrative violence used to remove them is appropriate. They therefore resort to citing “reasons of a personal nature,” i.e., arguments based upon their professed ideology, in isolation from the reality of the Polish state.

The Constitutional Tribunal’s decision of Dec. 2, 2009, confirmed that the principle of impartiality imposes an obligation on the authorities to act as sympathetic observers of religious life. This means that the Constitution protects us Poles from the state’s interference with the religious order, as well as from it forcibly restricting religious expression, which citizens are also entitled to in the workplace — even if it is a public office. The removal of crosses is nothing less than an act of hostility towards religious citizens, as well as the Christian heritage of the Polish Republic. The requirement for crosses to be removed is, from the perspective of the continuity and solemnity of the state, abstract and purely discretionary — i.e., ideological. So is treating the principle of separation of state and church as a principle of the separation of state life and human religiosity altogether.

Thus, when Tomasz Sawczuk writes that “there is a separation between church and state in Poland” and that therefore “the absence of religious symbols in public offices does not require any further justification,” he is only showing a lack of serious arguments.

The columnist has previously stated: “It is, on the contrary, impossible to offer any good reason for displaying religious symbols in public offices” without unjustifiably restricting civil rights. One could very well respond that it is, on the contrary, impossible to offer any good reason for not displaying religious symbols in public offices without unjustifiably restricting civil rights.

It should also be added that the restrictions on freedom of religious expression, which are permitted by the Constitution, cannot be enacted by means of local government ordinances. This can only happen, in certain circumstances, by an act of parliament, and therefore at the parliamentary level. What we are ultimately dealing with here are constitutional rights.

One might say that, after all, most people think like Tomasz Sawczuk. The only answer to this is to say that, even if this were true, this is what constitutions and laws are for, among other things: to protect the minority from the violence of the majority.

Finally, it must be added that Tomasz Sawczuk’s commentary contains wording that sounds like false reassurance to the reader. The columnist writes that Trzaskowski’s regulation applies to “crosses hanging in offices” and “does not apply to objects or symbols of religious significance in the possession of an office employee.” However, he fails to mention that it will not even be possible to keep such objects on the desk at which one works under this ordinance. This space, which is important for every employee, is very often personalized by its occupant, who might display photos of loved ones, small works of art and crafts, and/or religious objects. These kinds of decorations are often an element of support for people struggling with difficult professional duties. Being forced to give up this kind of support is another example of the violation of citizens’ rights.

Tomasz Rowiński is a senior research fellow of the project “Ordo Iuris: Civilization” by the Ordo Iuris Institute, as well as an editor at Christianitas and the portal Afirmacja.info. He is also a historian of ideas, a columnist, and an author of books, among them: Bękarty Dantego. Szkice o zanikaniu i odradzaniu się widzialnego chrześcijaństwa, Królestwo nie z tego świata. O zasadach Polski katolickiej na podstawie wydarzeń nowszych i dawniejszych, Turbopapiestwo. O dynamice pewnego kryzysu, and Anachroniczna nowoczesność. Eseje o cywilizacji przemocy. He lives in Książenice, near Grodzisk Mazowiecki, in Poland.

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