Defining the Limits of Exceptionalism

February 14, 2008

Author: Staff Writer

Source: The Economist

AMONG family-law buffs, the case is seen as a key example of the messy ways in which religious and civil law can get entangled. It concerns an Italian couple who wed in a Catholic church in 1962. After 25 years of less-than-blissful union, she got a legal separation from a civil court, which told him to make monthly maintenance payments. But he had other ideas: he convinced an ecclesiastical court that their union had never been valid, because they were close blood relations.

After vain appeals to various civil and religious courts in Italy (to which she complained that she never got a chance to tell her story), she turned to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2001 ruled in her favour and made a modest compensation award. The European judges in Strasbourg had no jurisdiction over church courts—but they did find that Italy's civil judges failed to assess the religious courts' work or note the deficiencies.