The European Court of Human Rights (a Chamber of seven judges) notified in writing today its judgment in the case of Lombardi Vallauri v. Italy (application no. 39128/05). The Court held that the Catholic University of Milan, which is a public law entity (“personne juridique de droit public”), should have given reasons for refusing to employ a lecturer who had not been approved by the Ecclesiastical authorities; hence, it found a violation of Articles 6 § 1 (right to a fair hearing) and 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Principal facts

More specifically, the applicant, Mr. Lombardi Vallauri, is an Italian national who began teaching legal philosophy in 1976 at the Faculty of Law of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Milan, on the basis of contracts renewed on an annual basis. When a competition for the post was advertised for the 1998/99 academic year, he applied. The Congregation for Catholic Education, an institution of the Holy See, informed by a letter the President of the University that some of the applicant’s views were “in clear opposition to Catholic doctrine” and that “in the interests of truth and of the well being of students and the University” the applicant should no longer teach there. The University President wrote to the Dean of the Faculty of Law, informing him of the Congregation’s position. The Faculty Board took note of the Holy See’s position and decided not to examine the applicant’s application, since one of the conditions for admission to the competition, namely the approval of the Congregation for Catholic Education, had not been met.

The applicant applied to the Lombardy Regional Administrative Court to have the decisions of the Faculty Board and the ecclesiastical authority set aside. He argued that the decisions in question were unconstitutional because they breached his right to equality, freedom of instruction and freedom of religion. The Regional Administrative Court rejected the application on the grounds, inter alia, that adequate reasons had been given for the Faculty Board’s refusal to consider the applicant’s candidacy, and that the revised Concordat between the Holy See and the Italian Republic did not lay down any requirement to state the religious grounds for refusing approval. The court further held that neither the Faculty Board nor the court itself had jurisdiction to examine the legitimacy of the Holy See’s decision, which had emanated from a foreign State. The court also pointed out that teaching staff were free to choose whether or not to adhere to the principles of the Catholic faith.

Mr. Vallauri then appealed to the Consiglio di Stato reiterating the lack of reasons given for the Faculty Board’s decision and contesting the lack of jurisdiction of the administrative court. The Consiglio di Stato dismissed the appeal. It stated that the Italian administrative and judicial authorities could not depart from a Constitutional Court judgment, according to which the fact that teaching appointments at the Catholic University were subject to the approval of the Holy See was compatible with Articles 33 and 19 of the Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of instruction and freedom of religion respectively. The Consiglio di Stato further observed that “no authority in the Republic may rule on the findings of the ecclesiastical authority”.

Complaint before the ECHR

Relying on Article 10 of the Convention, Mr Lombardi Vallauri complained that the decision of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, for which no reasons had been given and which had been taken without any genuine adversarial debate, had breached his right to freedom of expression.

Relying also on Article 6 § 1 of the Convention with regard to the fairness of the proceedings and his right of access to a court, the applicant complained of the domestic courts’ failure to rule on the lack of reasons for the Faculty Board’s decision, thereby restricting his ability to appeal against that decision and to instigate an adversarial debate. Mr. Lombardo Vallauri also complained of the fact that the Faculty Board had confined itself to taking note of the Congregation’s decision, which had also been taken without any adversarial debate.

Decision of the ECHR

The Court considered that, in omitting to explain how the applicant’s views, which supposedly ran counter to Catholic doctrine, were liable to affect the University’s interests, the Faculty Board had not given adequate reasons for its decision.

The Court went on to observe that, although it was not for the domestic authorities to examine the substance of the Congregation’s doctrinal stance, the administrative courts, in the interests of the principle of adversarial debate, should have addressed the lack of reasons for the Faculty Board decision.

In conclusion, the Court considered that the University’s interest in dispensing teaching based on Catholic doctrine could not extend to impairing the very substance of the procedural guarantees afforded to the applicant by Article 10 of the Convention. Accordingly, in the particular circumstances of the case, the interference with Mr. Lombardi Vallauri’s freedom of expression had not been “necessary in a democratic society”. The Court therefore held, by six votes to one, that there had been a violation of Article 10 of the Convention in its procedural aspect.

For the same reasons the Court held that the applicant had not had effective access to a court, and found a violation of Article 6 § 1 by six votes to one.