The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) makes decisions on religious freedom that affect the rights of over 800 million people in 47 countries. A famous case is the Lautsi v. Italy decision which prevented the display of the crucifix in classrooms, and was later revoked after a public outcry.

Dr Effie Fokas, a Greek researcher, has received an ERC Starting grant to study the influence of ECtHR decisions on the public. Looking beyond the legal implementation of the decisions, she hopes to discover how they change local perceptions of religious rights, grassroots movements and national case law.

The place of religion in the public sphere is a hot topic in Europe, where minority and majority religions jostle for space. Should we allow or restrict the expression of religion? And how does this apply in schools, the workplace and public spaces? Since 1993 the ECtHR has judged over 50 such cases. Common issues include the display of religious symbols, religious clothing, blasphemy laws and conflicts between religion and gender rights.

"The aftermath of these cases on people at the grassroots level is as important, if not more so, than their aftermath in legal terms," explains Dr Fokas, from the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy. "Cases like these inspire people to think about their own rights to religious freedom and often mobilise them to promote or defend those rights."

The project will study a range of ECtHR cases, analysing local reactions and the resulting mobilisations of religious and non-religious groups. A team of analysts and interviewers will conduct fieldwork in Italy, Greece, Romania and Turkey: countries chosen for their high stakes in religious rights case law.

Greece and Romania are two of seven Orthodox majority states, which together claim 63% of past ECtHR religious freedom (Article 9) convictions. Italy is also known for close church-state relations and Turkey provides an example of a large Muslim population within a secular state.

 Freedom of religion v. freedom from religion

The central issue for the ECtHR is who to give the freedom to: some people believe freedom means excluding religious symbols, clothing or speech from the public sphere, while others wish for the freedom to express their religion in public.

In the Leyla Sahin v. Turkey 2004 case, a university student was not allowed to enter exams wearing a Muslim headdress. The ECtHR ruled in favour of the university. However, when British Airways suspended an employee for refusing to remove a crucifix necklace, the court ruled in favour of the employee.

In relation to the Sahin case, Fokas claims: "A lot more research is needed on how the court is handling Islam and why. In our focus on Turkey, we hope to be able to provide some crucial analyses."

 Identifying battlefields for the next decade

The researchers will hold their first meeting in Athens on 7-8 March to discuss which specific cases to follow.  They aim to identify controversial themes likely to play out on the "European battlefield" in the next decade.

"Blasphemy and gender-related rights are two of the most open-ended questions at European and global level." Dr Fokas comments, "A new wave of thinking is moving towards protecting religions – not just individuals - from inflammatory language, online and elsewhere. Gender rights are also a crucial issue, with movements like LGBT groups fighting for rights in countries with close church-state relations."

Inspired by the Lautsi case, where local agendas reached national and international levels of influence, their research will also consider the pressure on the Court from citizens, analysing how grassroots movements can influence national and European decisions. They hope to find out who is most successful in lobbying the ECtHR and whether they focus on preserving, or fighting, the status quo in religion-state relations.

 Five years of in-depth research

The long-term nature of the ERC grant allows Dr Fokas to carry out a large-scale project on a new topic. While this line of research is quite well-developed in the USA, with several studies on grassroots movements around Supreme Court case law, it has not been covered in a European context. For the first time, Effie will bring together sociologists, political scientists and legal experts to focus on developments in the shadow of the ECtHR.

"The ERC has given me a fantastic opportunity and I am a great supporter of their long-term funding, which allows for really in-depth research. Many funding agencies provide grants for two to three years, which is not always enough for large-scale projects on important issues." comments Dr Fokas.

With the beginning of the Greek Presidency of the EU this month, Greece is in the spotlight for research, among many areas.

Dr Fokas hopes her research will increase understanding of how ECtHR decisions play out in reality and affect the daily lives of citizens. From minority religions to the majority, and from non-religious activists to bishops and imams: many different perspectives on religion in public will be explored through this project.

More examples of projects focussing on migration and asylum in this brochure: Migration and asylum: The contribution of frontier research to the understanding of human mobility across frontiers